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A guide to government’s controversial Temporary Foreign Worker Program

The federal government's controversial Temporary Foreign Worker Program is grabbing headlines again over allegations that Royal Bank of Canada is displacing several dozen technology employees by outsourcing to a company using foreigners.

The program allows companies to bring in workers from other countries for a wide variety of jobs – from nannies to white-collar professionals – when they can't find Canadians to hire.

Critics of the program argue it depresses wages, fosters unsafe work conditions and takes jobs from Canadians. Employers say it provides a reliable stream of labour and fuels economic growth.

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Here's more on the program:

What kinds of jobs do temporary foreign workers do?

Temporary foreign workers do just about anything. They take care of children and pick fruit and vegetables. They serve burgers at fast-food restaurants, work at abattoirs and as ski-lift operators. However, they also work in skilled jobs, such as in the oil patch and in information technology. Some have high-level positions, such as professors and bank executives.

Last year, for example, the government approved more skilled/technical positions than it did labourer jobs.

How common are they?

The number of temporary foreign workers has tripled in the past decade to an estimated 338,000 people in 2012. Temporary workers now make up nearly 2 per cent of the Canadian work force.

Where do they work?

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Every province has temporary foreign workers. Alberta has the most, followed by Ontario and British Columbia.

Where are they from?

The largest source country of foreign workers was the Philippines, according to a snapshot of government figures from late last year. Mexico was next, followed by the United States.

How much are they paid?

Employers are permitted to pay temporary foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than the prevailing wage for a particular job.

Do they pay taxes?

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Yes. Employers make standard deductions – Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance and income taxes – from their pay cheques. They also follow normal rules for vacation pay, have health insurance and are covered by workers' compensation boards.

Can they stay in Canada?

With some exceptions, such as those who come in as live-in caregivers, it is difficult for temporary workers to gain permanent residency in Canada. After four years, they must go home and wait four years to apply again to work here.

What are the rules for companies?

The program is meant to help employers fill positions after all efforts at recruiting Canadians have been exhausted. Under federal rules, companies are not allowed to use the program for work that can be performed by Canadians.

For many companies, the program involves a two-step process in which a company must first request a Labour Market Opinion from HRSDC and then specific work visas from Citizenship and Immigration.

Is the program controversial?

Yes. In addition to the RBC controversy, HD Mining was recently under fire for hiring 200 Chinese miners in British Columbia while the local union said the company did not consider qualified Canadians for the jobs. And critics say a new women's hospital in Winnipeg bypassed interested local tradesmen in favour of temporary workers from Ireland.

Is the government doing anything?

In the face of criticism over the HD Mining case, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said the government would review the program. Ottawa is also investigating the RBC case.

In the recent budget, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the government would require employers to go to greater lengths to advertise jobs to Canadians before claiming the need to bring foreign workers here, saying international workers should be "relied upon only when Canadians genuinely cannot fill those jobs." He also raised the idea of levying a fee for use of the program.

Are you a temporary foreign worker in Canada? The Globe would like to hear from you - e-mail us at community@globeandmail.com

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