CHARLOTTETOWN – Employment Minister Jason Kenney said Friday he’s willing to consider “local exemptions” to his recent overhaul of the temporary foreign worker program.
Kenney said he’ll consider changes in specific areas with very low levels of unemployment in regions with a higher level.
But Kenney made it clear he won’t compromise on the core goal of his controversial overhaul to the program: making sure employers don’t use it as a cheap source of labour when they could be hiring unemployed Canadians.
“I did reiterate that these important changes are designed to ensure that Canadians always come first in our job market and that the temporary foreign worker program is only a last, limited and temporary resort,” Kenney said in Charlottetown after a meeting with provincial labour ministers.
Kenney said that after listening to the concerns of the provinces and territories, he is taking the grievances seriously.
“In some cases, where there are very low levels of unemployment found within regions of higher unemployment, we are prepared to consider special local exemptions from some of the changes that we recently announced.”
In June, Kenney announced changes to limit the number of foreign workers that large and medium-sized companies are permitted to hire. He also toughened penalties for companies that violate the new rules, and promised inspections to uncover abuses.
Allen Roach, P.E.I.’s innovation minister, says his fellow ministers expressed serious concerns about the changes directly to Kenney.
“We heard from many jurisdictions that they recognized that some improvements could be made and needed to be made in certain aspects of the program,” Roach said.
“However many expressed that they are extremely concerned about the direct impact these changes will have on their industries.”
The labour ministers’ meeting came one day after western Canadian premiers gathering in Iqaluit criticized Ottawa on the changes to the temporary workers program.
“Limiting the ability to hire foreign workers to address critical labour shortages will unduly punish responsible employers in Western Canada, particularly those in smaller and remote communities where Canadian workers are not readily available,” they said in a communique.
While Kenney attempted to strike a conciliatory note toward the provinces, he took a hard line toward employers, whom he has criticized in the past as relying on relatively cheaper foreign workers as business model for success.
“We would encourage employers — I’m not talking about any region or industry in particular — we would encourage employers to redouble their efforts to hire and where necessary accommodate local unemployed workers,” Kenney said.
That could mean raising pay, allowing more flexible hours, investing in training or providing transport to work from hard-to-reach areas, he said.
“We think those options are all preferable than picking up the phone and calling a labour recruiter on the other side of the world and having someone fly you in from a developing country, into a region of double-digit unemployment.”