VANCOUVER - The government's decision to bar the food service industry from hiring temporary foreign workers is a wake-up call for employers across the country, says federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney.
There will be no tolerance for employers trying to skirt the rules of the Temporary Foreign Worker program, Kenney said in Vancouver on Friday.
"Let me be clear: the Temporary Foreign Worker program must always and only ever be a last and limited resort for employers who have made every possible effort to hire and train Canadians but can't find them for available jobs," Kenney said.
Kenney announced the moratorium on the food service industry Thursday night, after the controversial program made headlines yet again over allegations of misuse of the temporary workers at three McDonald's franchises in Victoria and a pizza restaurant in Weyburn, Sask.
Canadian employers must do more to attract employees, Kenney suggested.
"We are distressed that wage rates have barely kept pace with inflation since the global downturn, which is not indicative of a tight labour market. We are disappointed that Canadian employers invest less than virtually any other developed country in training," Kenney said.
Wages and working conditions must improve, and employers must invest more in training, in particular among under-represented groups such as immigrants, youth and aboriginal Canadians, he said.
"We've put them on notice that we expect Canadian employers to do better," Kenney said.
The temporary foreign worker program was first under fire in the fall of 2012, when it came to light that approval was granted to Chinese-owned HD Mining International to bring more than 200 people from China to work at its coal mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C.
The controversy prompted Kenney's predecessor to announce a review.
A study released this week by the C.D. Howe Institute found the program has grown from about 100,000 people in 2002 to as many as 338,000 now working across the country.
It also found the program actually increased jobless rates in B.C. and Alberta., which Kenney calls home.
Last April, facing a Federal Court lawsuit launched by unions over the HD Mining workers, the federal government introduced reforms to the program, including removing a provision that allowed employers to pay temporary foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than the prevailing Canadian wage. The government also put a stop to an accelerated process for approvals.
The moratorium and Kenney's assurances did little to assuage critics this time around.
The B.C. Federation of Labour said there's been a dramatic increase in the number of temporary foreign workers filling entry-level jobs in recent years in the westernmost province.
And the Alberta Federation of Labour said problems with the program extend far beyond restaurants. The group said records for 2012-2013 show 224 cases where businesses in Alberta paid foreign workers less than the prevailing wage rate.
President Gil McGowan said these businesses included hotels, gas stations, casinos, convenience stores, greenhouses, feedlots and nurseries.
"Minister Kenney has now banned the use of temporary foreign workers in food services," McGowan said Friday. "But while the food service industry may be the worst offender, it is by no means the only industry that has been using the program to displace Canadians and drive down wages."
McGowan said the government must scrap low-wage jobs from the program and suspend its use for medium to high-skilled workers pending an investigation by the auditor general.
The federal New Democrats welcomed the moratorium on the food service industry but said an independent inquiry of the "defective" program is needed.
Criticism was not limited to opponents of the program.
Joyce Reynolds, head of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said it was surprising that government would take such a broad, sweeping approach to just one sector.
"Our members are worried, they're very concerned that restaurants will have to close because of a lack of staff," Reynolds said.
As far as wages, she said restaurants can't compete with oil companies in Alberta offering $30 an hour.
"The vast majority of TFWs are in Western Canada, because it's been very difficult to get people to move from the East to jobs out West. Every sector is experiencing labour shortages there," Reynolds said.
Stephen Cryne, head of the Canadian Employee Relocation Council, said the moratorium is short-sighted.
"The government is to blame for this mess," he said. "They should have begun working with the food services industry long ago to address the issues specific to that industry."
- With files from Lee-Anne Goodman in Ottawa.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous headline referred to Jason Kenney as labour minister.