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Tories ponder tougher measures concerning temporary foreign workers

OTTAWA - Ottawa is considering a further crackdown on its embattled temporary foreign worker program that could result in higher fees for companies hoping to hire foreign help and an elimination of the practice altogether in areas of high unemployment, The Canadian Press has learned.

Government officials presented various options on how to fix the troubled program during a closed-door meeting Thursday with stakeholders that included business representatives and labour unions.

Among them was the implementation of a so-called wage floor that would prevent companies from paying foreign workers beneath a set wage level still to be determined.

That measure would be aimed at making it more difficult for employers like low-wage fast-food restaurants to access the program, the stakeholders say.

But they also point out it could also inflict further headaches on Employment Minister Jason Kenney if the set salary level is higher than the minimum wage, meaning temporary foreign workers would stand to make better money than Canadians.

The government also floated the possibility of significantly higher fees for companies seeking temporary foreign workers. Those fees would be on par with what American companies are charged to hire such employees, the stakeholders were told.

Canadian companies are currently charged $275 to access the program. In the U.S., employers can pay as much as $2,300 to access the American temporary foreign worker program.

Kenney has been on the hot seat for weeks as fresh allegations have surfaced about abuses of the temporary foreign worker program by various companies, but particularly those in the food services sector.

Last month, he placed a temporary ban on restaurants that prevents them from accessing the program, and has been vowing that a new slate of rule changes was on the horizon. Those changes were floated to stakeholders Thursday.

No final decisions have been made on further restrictions, the stakeholders emphasized. The government simply laid out potential ideas to tackle the abuses, raising the possibility of exempting areas of the country with full employment from any crackdown measures.

The temporary foreign worker program has ballooned under the Conservatives from about 100,000 people in 2002 to as many as 338,000 now working across the country. In 2013 alone, Ottawa approved approximately 240,000 temporary foreign workers.

Data compiled by Kenney's department shows that thousands of companies and government departments, federal and provincial alike, have hired foreign help in recent years.

From doggie spas to oil companies, employers have been given the green light to hire temporary foreign workers even in regions of the country struggling with joblessness, including the Maritimes and southwestern Ontario, and in sectors where there is no apparent lack of domestic candidates.

The controversy has been one of the most vexing to confront Kenney during his many years as one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's most valued cabinet lieutenants.

Known as Mr. Fix-It by some of his cabinet colleagues, Kenney has pledged to bring in major reforms to the system, including beefing up the auditing powers of federal inspectors who are hunting down abusers.

_ Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

The Canadian Press


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