The Commons: Jason Kenney and Thomas Mulcair disagreeably agree

Of temporary foreign workers, they are almost of one mind

Thomas Mulcair offered a simple premise.

“Mr. Speaker, a year ago the Conservatives created a new accelerated approval process for hiring temporary foreign workers,” the NDP leader offered. “They allowed them to be paid 15% less than Canadian workers doing the same job. That is an incentive to hire temporary foreign workers instead of Canadians. Today, Conservatives are begging Canadians to believe that this time they are really going to crack down, but Conservatives have not removed the incentive to hire temporary foreign workers. Why have they not changed the 15% rule? Their message is still, ‘Work for less or you’ll be replaced.’ ”

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney rejected this premise entirely.

“As always on this matter, Mr. Speaker, the NDP is wrong,” Mr. Kenney declared. “I do not know whether the Leader of the Opposition has been improperly briefed or whether he knows he is wrong when he says that the rules allow for foreign workers to be underpaid. That is not true. People cannot come into this country to work on work permits unless they are paid at the prevailing regional wage rate. However, of course, in every occupation there is a range and this allows for some people to be paid as long as Canadians are paid within that range, at the same wage level.”

That said, the answer to Mr. Mulcair’s actual question was apparently yes. Indeed, an hour and 45 minutes later, Mr. Kenney convened a news conference to declare that, a year after it was the introduced, the 15% rule was no more. Only, as Mr. Kenney explained, for entirely different reasons.

The original problem was apparently that some temporary foreign workers were being paid too much.

“The requirement has always been that Canadian employers … must offer the position to qualified Canadians at what is called the prevailing, average, regional wage rate, which is based on data on an occupational category taken by StatsCan and HRSDC, which determines what is the median average for a particular occupation in a particular region of employment. And some employers came to us to say that this created an aberration because, of course, for every job there is a range. There’s a starting salary, people typically move up in terms of their compensation based on their duration or their performance. And the aberration was that newly hired temporary foreign workers, the requirement was that they be paid the average, when newly hired Canadian workers were paid a starting wage that was, by definition, less than the median average.”

Enter the 15% rule. And commence disagreeing.

“But what’s always been misunderstood here is that the requirement was that they could not pay 15% less for high-skilled, 5% less for low-skilled, unless, unless, Canadians were being paid 15% less than the median average, or 5% for low-skilled workers,” Mr. Kenney explained. “So that’s why, I guess it’s easier to convey a falsehood in 30 seconds in Question Period than to explain a complicated truth. But the truth is very simple.”

And so now exit the 15% rule.

“But, our experience, since we put in place the flexibility in April 2012, is that less than 5% of employers actually used the flexibility that they were given to pay less than the median average. And so, given the confusion about this and given the fact that it has not been used, we decided to end the pilot.”

Mr. Kenney ventured that the opposition had “knowingly misled” Canadians in this regard. But there was no demand anyway. And for that matter, Mr. Kenney decided to add, the government’s desire was that businesses consider raising their wages to attract workers as a first resort.

“One thing I want to say is that we want to ensure that employers are looking at and using wage and salary increases as their first option, before they look abroad,”  the minister offered. “And that’s what the other changes here will do.”

All this just after Mr. Kenney had explained that the government would be seeking input from, among other interested parties, unions.

A couple hours previous, the NDP’s Chris Charlton had picked up Mr. Mulcair’s line of questioning.

“The Conservatives completely lost control of the temporary foreign workers program,” she charged. “Originally, it brought in a small number of workers. Now it is massive, pays them less, displaces Canadians and drives down wages for everyone. Even Mark Carney agrees the current program is good for neither workers nor our economy.”

Mr. Kenney was once more unimpressed. “What is interesting is I have this stack of letters from NDP members of Parliament asking for more temporary foreign workers in their constituencies,” he reported, holding aloft the stack in question. “The members opposite know who they are. They come up to me all the time. While they are seeking to increase the number of foreign workers in their constituencies, we are working to ensure the program works for the Canadian economy.”

Ms. Charlton felt it necessary to clarify the disagreement here. “Mr. Speaker,” she shot back, “no New Democrat asked this minister to displace Canadian jobs.”

At his desk, Mr. Kenney now flipped through the aforementioned stack, perhaps in search of something that might directly rebut this bit. Whether or not he found something in those papers, he had an example at the ready when he stood to respond.

“Mr. Speaker, let us be clear,” he humbly offered. “The NDP is suggesting that the temporary foreign worker program always displaces Canadians and yet it wants more temporary foreign workers to come into Canada. I went to a heritage committee hearing a couple of months ago where the NDP members were attacking the government for not making it easier to bring in people more quickly to work in the computer gaming programming business in Montreal. They said that the government was being far too rigid in the way that it applied the rules, seeking to ensure that the employers offered the jobs to Canadians first.”

In his seat, Mr. Mulcair held a hand aloft and made a derisive gesture—the “blah-blah-blah” cited here—to suggest Mr. Kenney’s remarks were lacking in content.

“The NDP policy,” Mr. Kenney finished, “is to say one thing but do another.”

Mr. Mulcair chuckled.

Back then to the future.

“One of the misconceptions about the program,” Mr. Kenney explained to a reporter, “is that it’s predominantly about low-skilled workers and that just simply is not the truth … The vast majority of positions are in the mid- to high-skilled range of jobs.”

Jobs like, say, the programming of computer games.

“If you talk to the computer game production businesses in Montreal,” Mr. Kenney continued, “they are absolutely desperate for accelerated access to people from countries like France and the United States with very specific skills.”

So we are agreed. The 15% rule should be done away with. And if this country is to develop the next Angry Birds, government policy must allow for the safe importation of the finest Americans and French programmers.

It is unclear what remains to disagree about, but surely the interested parties will find something.