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Ottawa slow to monitor temporary foreign worker program compliance

Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons, Thursday, Oct.2, 2014 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Newly released details on the temporary foreign worker program reveal that only a handful of public servants – and for many years none at all – were assigned to investigate whether employers were following the rules.

Before 2010, not a single government worker was responsible for monitoring compliance with the program, even as about 200 federal employees processed employers' applications to bring in foreign workers.

Records show that it was not until 2010 that the federal government assigned staff to monitor the program and investigate potential violations. The number rose from 24 to 29 the next year and then dropped to 14 in 2012 and 2013 before rising to 43 in 2014.

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(What is the temporary foreign worker program?Read The Globe's easy explanation)

In response to extensive controversy, the Conservative government announced major changes in June to limit use of the program and prevent abuse. At that time, officials confirmed that about 40 staff work on compliance aspects and that reforms would bring that up to 60 or more.

However, the government had not provided a detailed breakdown of staffing levels for compliance in recent years.

NDP MP Jinny Sims received the numbers this month in a packet of statistics that was compiled in response to a question she asked Employment Minister Jason Kenney during a committee appearance on May 1.

Ms. Sims said the data show the government did not take compliance seriously until it became a political headache. She said the numbers also show the previous Liberal government launched and expanded the program without any compliance measures at all.

"Now I understand why they were so reluctant to share this information," she said in an interview. "Because when Canadians look at this information, they know that this government had opened the floodgates and opened up the temporary foreign worker program for abuse and were doing nothing, and then very little, in order to ensure the program functions according to its original parameters."

The figures released by the government also show the number of staff assigned to process applications under the program rose from 32 in 2002 to 156 in 2006 and 198 in 2014.

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A spokesperson for Mr. Kenney noted that the government's reforms announced earlier this year will increase the focus on enforcing the program's rules.

The changes will dramatically restrict access to the program, essentially making it off limits to employers in accommodation, food services and retail in regions with unemployment above 6 per cent.

Alberta businesses in these sectors say the changes are overly restrictive. Mr. Kenney re-stated this month that the government stands by the reforms and is not interested in softening them.

Citizenship and Immigration Department figures indicate that the number of temporary foreign workers present each year on Dec. 1 has more than tripled in a decade, growing from 109,667 in 2003 to 338,221 in 2012. That measurement can underestimate the total number of foreign workers arriving each year because it would miss those who come for short periods and are not in Canada on Dec. 1.

Mr. Kenney's department has said the number of employer applications to the program dropped significantly in the two months after the changes were announced, a 50-per-cent drop from the same two months a year earlier and a 74-per-cent decrease from July and August, 2012.

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