OTTAWA - An upcoming jobs fair in France is telling Canadian employers they can hire temporary foreign workers and bypass skills and wage requirements as the controversy surrounding the federal program rages on.
"Did you know ... you can recruit francophone temporary foreign workers without an LMO?" reads the promotional material for the Working Abroad Newcomers Network exhibition being held in June in Lyon and Toulouse.
Canadian employers generally need a positive LMO — a labour market opinion — to bring in temporary foreign workers. The LMO requires companies to explain why they want to hire a foreign worker instead of a Canadian.
Would-be French temporary foreign workers, however, can apply for the so-called francophone significant benefit.
That allows them to come to Canada without the need of an LMO to live and work outside of Quebec in managerial, professional, technical and skilled trades under specific occupation classifications.
The government of Canada says the benefit is designed to promote "linguistic duality" in Canada, to enrich the country's bilingual nature and to help develop minority official language communities.
Alexis Pavlich, a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, defended the benefit, saying it's part of the government's efforts to increase the proportion of "francophone economic immigrants in francophone minority communities" from 1.1 per cent in 2011 to four per cent by 2018.
"Canadians should be proud that we are attracting the best francophone talents in the world," she added in an email.
But one union leader, a vocal critic of the temporary foreign workers program, scoffed at the French jobs fair.
"They don't have to do anything but go over there with a letter and say they want to hire 'Jean-Luc,'" said Doug Parton, an official at the Ironworkers union in B.C. who's invited Employment Minister Jason Kenney to his local's upcoming apprenticeship banquet.
"As much as it's affected the burger-flippers and the helicopter pilots, the big picture here is where is this skills shortage? Where's our commitment to Canadian workers first? Why aren't we committing to training?"
Among the Canadian employers participating in the France fair, according to the promo literature, are the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Loblaws, Maple Leaf Foods and Scotiabank.
The Working Abroad Newcomers Network says that almost 24,000 job seekers are in its database and interested in jobs in Canada. The organization did not respond to a request for a comment on Thursday.
Kenney is featured on the brochure for the event, shown speaking at a similar jobs fair held by the same organization in Ireland two years ago, when he was immigration minister.
In a speech last fall in Calgary, Kenney touched upon his trip to Ireland.
"It opened my eyes to the possibilities that exist abroad," he said.
Ottawa's troubled temporary foreign workers program has been under sustained fire for weeks amid reports that some companies are taking unfair advantage of the scheme at the expense of Canadian employees.
Hundreds of Canadian companies and governmental bodies employ temporary foreign workers, according to data compiled by Kenney's department.
The program — originally designed to address shortages of skilled workers, not to recruit low-skilled help — has ballooned 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.
There's been an especially dramatic increase in the number of hotels and restaurants accessing the program under the Conservatives, prompting Kenney last week to temporarily ban the food services sector from applying.
But workers from myriad professions and sectors are coming forward. Helicopter pilots are among those who complained this week that they're being cut out of job opportunities by companies that are opting to hire cheaper temporary foreign workers instead.
Hundreds of LMO application forms recently examined by The Canadian Press simply ask employers whether they've attempted to hire a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident before applying for a temporary foreign worker. If the employer checks "no," it must provide an explanation — and that, for the most part, comprises the full extent of the government's efforts to verify their claims.
In one LMO application for a pilot that required such an explanation, a helicopter operator simply wrote: "Expertise."
Kenney has vowed repeatedly to lower the boom on any companies found to be abusing the program, even warning of fraud charges. His office is expected to announce a spate of additional rule changes soon.
"There are independent audits done by the integrity branch of Service Canada of employers who have obtained temporary foreign workers," he told the House on Thursday.
"We have additional legislative authority since last December, allowing for the seizure of documents, unannounced interviews and site inspections."
But several government programs allow temporary foreign workers to come to Canada without the skills assessment supposedly provided by the LMO process, and with no requirement for employers to pay TFWs the prevailing market wage. Unions say such programs drive down wages in Canada.
Under the International Experience Canada program, more than 50,000 temporary foreign workers aged 18-35 — and their spouses — come to Canada every year.
Kenney has defended the program, pointing out it allows "tens of thousands" of young Canadians to work abroad as part of its reciprocal nature.
Government data, however, indicates three times as many foreigners come to Canada under the program than the other way around. Fewer than 20,000 Canadian workers, on average, have accessed the program annually in recent years.
Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25