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Provinces keep Ottawa in the dark on foreign workers violations

Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney will discuss information gaps with the provinces next month.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

For employers of temporary foreign workers, there is supposed to be a price for breaking provincial labour laws: blacklisting from the federal program that allows businesses to hire outside the country.

In reality, the flow of information on wayward employers is scant between provinces and the federal government. Ontario, one of the largest users of temporary foreign workers (TFWs), doesn't have an information-sharing deal with Employment and Social Development Canada. The province also does not keep track of whether TFW employers have broken labour laws.

Even where agreements exist (Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan), Ottawa isn't told about every violation. Alberta has investigated more than 1,700 complaints since 2007 – about one every working day – related to the treatment of foreign workers, figures provided by the province reveal. But only serious contraventions are relayed to Ottawa and what is done about the cases that are passed on is not clear.

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The federal Employment Department did not respond to follow-up questions on the issue. Employment Minister Jason Kenney acknowledges that the lack of communication between Ottawa and the provinces poses a significant challenge to enforcement. He is now pressing provinces and territories for action.

"We need effective information-sharing agreements with the provinces," Mr. Kenney told The Globe and Mail editorial board recently. "It's hugely important. When their labour standards agencies identify unsafe working conditions in a work site that has TFWs, the provinces should be informing us automatically, so we can then blacklist that employer from using the TFW program."

Mr. Kenney said he will raise the issue with his provincial and territorial counterparts next month at a job skills forum in Charlottetown. He also plans to urge them to regulate labour recruiters. Many provinces don't.

His department recently sent letters to all provinces and territories, asking to strengthen existing information-sharing deals and establish agreements where none exist. In a missive to Ontario's deputy labour minister obtained by The Globe, a senior federal official states that Ottawa wants a deal signed by the fall.

Deputy employment minister Ian Shugart also urged Ontario to bolster its foreign worker legislation to include penalties for "unscrupulous employers and recruiters."

The federal government has itself been criticized for haphazard enforcement of TFW rules. In announcing a major overhaul last week, Mr. Kenney pledged to hire more inspectors and fine employers who abuse the program up to $100,000. The minister noted that information needs to flow both ways and provinces must be told when federal officials have concerns about TFW employers.

"Chances are if they're loose with the rules on the federal immigration side, they're probably also loose with the domestic labour rules," the minister said.

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Alberta Labour spokesman Jay Fisher said the federal department has not yet identified what changes it is seeking with Alberta's agreement, in place since 2008.

Alberta was the first province to keep track of labour grievances involving foreign workers. Most of the 1,700 complaints centre on pay issues, such as compensation for overtime, statutory holidays and vacations. (Workplace safety issues involving TFWs are not tracked separately.)

But Mr. Fisher noted no document has been created for communicating violations to federal authorities. Instead, provincial officials evaluate concerns on a case-by-case basis, touching base with federal counterparts by phone or e-mail when warranted. Minor breaches are not passed on.

What has been done with that information over the years is unclear. On its website, Employment and Social Development Canada lists five employers who have had their foreign labour permits suspended or revoked, all in 2014.

The department declined to disclose how many permits were halted for misconduct before this year. It also refused to reveal how many employer compliance reviews it has done.

When it comes to monitoring TFW complaints, Alberta and Manitoba are anomalies.

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Because Ontario does not separately track contraventions by employers of foreign labourers, violations are not relayed to the federal government.

"We do not track the immigration status of any complainant," said Craig MacBride, press secretary for Ontario's Labour Minister. "Our databases catalogue incidents by type. It's the most useful way for us so we can track trends, know what areas are of most serious concern and respond appropriately."

The two sides have been negotiating an information-sharing deal for four years and reached an agreement in March. Final signoff is still required.

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About the Author
National news reporter

Renata joined The Globe and Mail's Toronto newsroom in March of 2011. Raised in the Greater Toronto Area, Renata spent nine years reporting in Alberta for the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal, covering crime, environment and political affairs. More

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