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Kenney defends temporary workers hired in Windsor, Ont., as highly skilled

OTTAWA - Most of the temporary foreign workers hired in the manufacturing sector over the past three years in Windsor, Ont. — a hotbed of unemployment hit hard by the global recession — were skilled workers who repaired and installed industrial equipment, Jason Kenney said Wednesday.

"The overwhelming majority of these (labour market opinions) were issued for industrial instrument technicians and mechanics for less than six months," the embattled employment minister said in the House of Commons before tabling some of his department's data on the region.

"These would typically be people who are installing equipment, equipment that is purchased from perhaps the United States, who come up here to either repair or install equipment."

He chastised Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland for suggesting they were dubious hires.

Freeland has questioned why so many temporary foreign workers were hired in Windsor when it grappled with an unemployment rate that hovered above nine per cent for much of 2013, one of the highest levels in the country.

"If she would bother to speak to the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, they would tell her that without these repair people, the equipment and the factories would stop producing and all the jobs would be lost," Kenney said.

The minister, long considered one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's most capable lieutenants, is under relentless fire over the government's beleaguered temporary foreign worker program.

Harper himself defended the government's handling of the program when questioned by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who challenged the prime minister to support his party's five-point proposal to fix it.

"The government has for some time been recognizing some of the problems," Harper said.

"That is why in the past three years we have brought in a series of reforms and continue to bring in reforms, reforms that have in fact lowered the application intake by 30 per cent."

The temporary foreign worker program has ballooned from about 100,000 people in 2002 to as many as 338,000 now working across the country. In 2013 alone, Ottawa approved approximately 240,000 temporary foreign workers.

Other data compiled by Kenney's department shows that a slew of companies and government departments, federal and provincial alike, have hired foreign help. That includes in regions of the country struggling with joblessness, including the Maritimes and southwestern Ontario, and in sectors where there is no apparent lack of domestic candidates.

One expert questioned the hiring practices in Windsor while bemoaning the lack of more precise data, a common complaint among those suspicious of the government's insistence that Canadian businesses face a major skills shortage.

"It is difficult to believe that there are no locals who are qualified for those positions, but it is hard to know without specific job titles and descriptions," said Mike Moffatt, a business professor at Western University in London, Ont.

Industrial instrument technicians and mechanics repair and maintain equipment and are employed by companies that include pulp-and-paper plants, nuclear and hydro power generating stations and petrochemical and natural gas companies.

The newest data from Kenney represents only a portion of the temporary foreign workers hired in the Windsor area from January 2011 to June 2013, Moffatt noted.

The information details just 641 workers, but data already made public shows that companies were given the green light to hire a total of 1,755 foreign workers in Windsor during the same time period.

"My big frustration about all of this is that there's just so much we don't know, and so much we're not being told," Moffatt said.

"This program has escalated so quickly since 2006 — the rate of growth is tremendous — so it's worth asking why we have so many in places like Ontario, and what precisely are they doing."

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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