TFW program layered with trouble

When he ran the Boathouse Restaurant in Fenelon Falls, Ont., the eatery bragged that chef Everol Powell ran a tight ship. When the 44-year-old Powell bought Wimpy’s Diner in Lindsay, Ont., the restaurant told us of his culinary expertise and his desire for perfection.

When he ran the Boathouse Restaurant in Fenelon Falls, Ont., the eatery bragged that chef Everol Powell ran a tight ship.

When the 44-year-old Powell bought Wimpy’s Diner in Lindsay, Ont., the restaurant told us of his culinary expertise and his desire for perfection.

Then in February of this year, Wimpy’s received some surprise visitors — the Ontario Provincial Police, Canadian Border Services, Service Canada and Waterloo regional police — and Powell was facing human trafficking charges in relation to eight Jamaican workers he had brought into the country under the Conservatives’ Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Such alleged abuse, Employment Minister Jason Kenney tells us, is extremely rare, but it just one tentacle of a complicated program that Kenney is working overtime trying to fix. The minister, who is under sustained pressure daily in the House of Commons, is dealing with a program that can be likened to an onion. Every time he peels back one layer, there is another troubling layer waiting.

Every time an instance of abuse is publicized, others who feel wronged are emboldened to bring their concerns to the public, unions are emboldened to challenge perceived inequities in the program, immigration lawyers point to other problems, Canadian workers fuel the perception that a mismanaged program is taking jobs from them.

Kenney is fighting on at least four fronts. He is dealing with the abuse of his program in the food industry and Kenney has temporarily barred that sector from using the program.

He is also dealing with more scrutiny — and allegations of abuse — in the intercompany transfer sector of the program, where companies often plead “special knowledge” to fill jobs with foreign workers rather than Canadians.

He is conceding there is an imbalance on another workers’ program, International Experience Canada, which is supposed to be a reciprocal program allowing young foreign workers to fill jobs here while Canadians go abroad — except there are more than three times as many foreign workers in this country than Canadians heading the other way. Some of the “reciprocal” programs are clearly one-way streets, according to figures obtained by Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner.

In 2012, there were two Canadians working in Croatia, but 300 Croatians working here. There were four Canadians working in Poland, but 753 Poles working here. Some 240 Canadians were working in Ireland, but 5,244 Irish workers were here.

Kenney says this is a tribute to the robust Canadian economy but he agrees there has been an explosion of reciprocal agreements between Canada and other countries. But it is really the work of Kenney, as immigration minister, changing a largely diplomatic program into a way to import labour for shortages that were illusory. None of the jobs is subject to any study regarding need and there are no standards regulating pay rates. Kenney is also trying to explain why there has been a surge in temporary foreign workers in areas with high unemployment rates, includes parts of Nova Scotia and southwestern Ontario.

“There are problems in this program,” he says. “There are serious problems, but we also agree that we should not exaggerate those.”

Abuse, at least that he is aware of, constitutes less than one per cent of all cases, he says. He acknowledges an unbalanced international program but is quick to add: “I have not heard any Canadians say they are terrified of 20-year-old Aussies working serving beer part-time in Whistler.”

Kenney has promised a fix to the program within a few weeks, but that is a tall order because a program allowed to spin out of control under Conservative watch has already seen more repaving and rebuilding over the past year than the Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway. He has signalled he may lengthen the time period that jobs are advertised to Canadians before employers are allowed to access the temporary program.

He has hinted he will increase the comically tiny $275 fee charged to employers to get a labour market opinion. He has also pleaded with critics to watch the tone of this debate lest it devolve into an “us versus them” divide.

There has been no hint of that tone in the Commons debate, where both New Democrats and Liberals have merely highlighted a program that has devolved into a mess.

There are 338,000 temporary foreign workers in this country. Most are needed and most employers are playing by the rules, but as Kenney fixes one layer of his program, there are many more layers of problems lying in wait.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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