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B.C. lawsuit spurs Ottawa to review foreign worker program

Industrial electrician Henry Builes, hired under the Temporary Foreign Worker program, on the job in New Westminster, B.C., on Nov. 3, 2009.

Laura Leyshon/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa will review a controversial federal program that brings thousands of foreign workers to Canada every year, under pressure over a B.C. mining company's plans to hire Chinese workers.

At any given moment, there are 300,000 to 450,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada in fields as diverse as agriculture, the service industry and high technology.

Some argue the system lets foreigners take jobs from Canadians, while others complain it leaves temporary workers open to abuse, including being underpaid in unsafe conditions.

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"It is clear to our government that there are some problems with the Temporary Foreign Worker program," Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said in a statement. "We take these very seriously and are currently reviewing the program."

The review comes after B.C. labour groups filed a court action to block permits for Chinese workers to come to British Columbia to toil at a Chinese-backed coal project.

Toronto immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman, who is representing the unions that filed the court action, said the action would continue.

Critics questioned how effective the review would be and why it took so long for the government to respond.

"The Temporary Foreign Worker program is a train wreck that has been on the rails too long. The Conservatives have finally realized it's in their interest to get out of the way," Karl Flecker, national director of human rights and anti-racism at the Canadian Labour Congress, said on Thursday.

Ottawa had previously announced it was investigating the process that gave Vancouver-based HD Mining a green light to hire about 200 workers from China for a coal project near Tumbler Ridge in northern B.C.

Mrs. Finley said Thursday the federal government is not satisfied that the employer did enough to ensure that Canadian workers had first crack at the jobs.

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"We are not satisfied with what we have learned about the process that led to permission for hundreds of foreign workers to gain jobs at the Dehua Mines subsidiary in B.C.," Mrs. Finley said in a statement.

"In particular, we are not satisfied that sufficient efforts were made to recruit or train Canadians interested in these jobs. Specifically, the requirement that applicants have skills in a foreign language does not appear to be linked to a genuine job requirement."

An HD spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment.

HD Mining, a Vancouver-based company working with Dehua and other Chinese interests to develop the project, said it needed workers with specialized mining skills and there was a shortage of such workers in Canada.

Some online job postings said that Mandarin language skills would be an asset. An HD spokesperson subsequently said that information was posted in error.

Concerns were also raised about recruitment fees after reports emerged that recruiting agencies told would-be employees that they would have to pay thousands of dollars in fees to apply for Canadian mining jobs.

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Such fees are illegal under British Columbia's Employment Standards Act and the province said last month it would investigate the matter.

HD Mining, meanwhile, said the workers it planned to hire were already employed by its Chinese partner and that no recruitment agencies were involved.

Mr. Flecker said he'll be waiting to see whether this review will produce results or is merely designed to deflect criticism from the government.

Labour groups have for years been raising concern about Canada's increasing reliance on foreign workers. A Metcalf Foundation report released earlier this year found the number of migrant workers in Canada has tripled since 2000 and that since 2006, the number of migrant workers with temporary status who enter the country each year has exceeded the number of economic immigrants who are granted permanent resident status.

To date, much of the controversy around the program has focused on workers in the domestic in agricultural sectors.

In B.C., for example, there have been complaints about housing and workplace safety since 2004, when a program for seasonal agricultural workers was implemented in the province.

The Mexican Consulate in Vancouver said earlier this year that it had warned some B.C. farmers that they could lose hiring privileges under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program as a result of substandard housing provided for employees.

Ten employers have had workers transferred away from their sites to other B.C. operations, mostly as a result of alleged unsatisfactory accommodation, while another 42 employers have been put on "probation" over issues that include not implementing a recent minimum-wage increase.

Also in B.C., labour groups have accused Mexican authorities of blacklisting employees for labour activities. That issue remains before the provincial Labour Relations Board.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Diane Finley's name. This version has been corrected.

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About the Authors
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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