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More changes on temporary foreign workers rules coming in April: Kenney

OTTAWA - The next spate of changes to Canada's controversial temporary foreign workers program will likely include a limited fast track for workers in high-demand professions in regions of the country with low unemployment, says Employment Minister Jason Kenney.

The government plans to introduce Round 2 of its changes to the program in April, Kenney said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"There's no doubt we've seen abuses that really tick me off, and that's one of the reasons that we changed some of the rules last year," Kenney said.

The next round of changes appear to be aimed at addressing complaints from businesses, trade associations and even some labour unions that have bemoaned the procedural red tape and lengthy delays that quickly resulted from the earlier rule changes.

Round 2 will speed up the so-called labour market opinion process in which federal officials decide whether to approve a company's application to hire temporary foreign workers, Kenney said.

"I have no interest in fast-tracking LMO applications for foreign workers to come into low-paying jobs in areas of high unemployment," Kenney said. "But I do have an interest in ensuring that where there is clearly a demonstrable scarcity of skills, that we make the program available as a last resort."

Robert Blakely, director of Canadian affairs for the U.S. labour federation AFL-CIO, praised the government for tackling the problem, particularly for cracking down on abusers.

"The issue boils down to this: Having brought people into the country, how do you ensure that there is an appropriate use of those workers if there are Canadians that would take those jobs?" he said.

"The new rules are helping out on that front."

But he added the changes should be linked to training. Companies applying to use the temporary foreign workers program should be compelled to provide training to Canadian workers, Blakely said.

In Tuesday's federal budget, the Conservatives committed $11 million in spending over two years, and $3.5 million a year, to continue to reform the temporary foreign workers program with the goal of ensuring that Canadians are first in line for available jobs.

The government also announced it would launch a so-called expression of interest system, aimed at attracting immigrants whose skills match Canadian labour market needs.

The tough language on temporary foreign workers in the budget, and Kenney's stated intentions this week for Round 2, have taken some stakeholders by surprise.

"To say that companies in areas where there's high unemployment can't access the program — don't you want those companies that are creating jobs in science, engineering and technology to prosper and create even more jobs?" said Stephen Cryne, head of the Canadian Employee Relocation Council .

"And what's defined as a high unemployment area? Toronto? Toronto has an 8.2 per cent unemployment rate, so does that mean companies in Toronto in need of very highly skilled people can't access the program?"

Toronto and Montreal, also with a joblessness rate above the national average, are "global centres of excellence for finance, aerospace, IT, health care and engineering, and they rely on access to the highly skilled workers that are in short supply in Canada," Cryne added.

Interest groups are particularly puzzled given the Finance Department circulated a background paper to stakeholders leading up to the budget that starkly illustrated Canada's skills shortage and the need for temporary foreign workers in select fields.

"Proportionally fewer Canadians graduate with university degrees in high-demand fields such as science, mathematics and engineering than in many other OECD countries," the paper reads, "and Canada appears to lag behind its peers in developing business skills."

Cryne's organization recently conducted a survey that found some businesses have been forced to move projects out of Canada because of the ongoing crackdown on temporary foreign workers. The majority of the companies polled also reported that the tougher rules have resulted in higher costs and long delays in the completion of critical contracts.

Boom provinces say their economies are hungry for the type of skilled workers that aren't readily available in Canada due to the skills shortage, a phenomenon that the Canadian Chamber of Commerce has called one of the top barriers to Canadian competitiveness.

Last spring, the government scurried to tighten the rules amid an uproar over laid-off workers at RBC being ordered to train their replacements, including those who came to Canada on TFW permits. A B.C. mining company was also in hot water for hiring more than 200 Chinese workers after an ad seeking Mandarin-speakers failed to attract Canadian applicants.

Kenney acknowledged it's tough to please everyone on the temporary foreign workers file.

"It doesn't matter what we do, certain groups say the rules are too tight, others say they're too loose," he said.

"We're trying to strike the right balance, which is to compel Canadian employers to do more to actively to recruit, train and hire Canadians, and only use the TFW program as a last resort. So stay tuned for our next round."

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