Friday, June 14, 2024

Ottawa under fire over not compelling companies to ask unions before hiring temporary foreign workers

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Construction on the 100 level concourse at Scotiabank Arena as MLSE announces the second phase of the Reimagination project for the venue, in Toronto on May 14.The Canadian Press

Canadian jobs are being lost to temporary foreign workers because of a decision years ago by the federal government to drop the need for companies to consult unions before they can bring in people from abroad to fill vacancies, Ottawa is being warned.

Union leaders in the construction industry, a significantly unionized sector, say the change has meant that Canadians are being bypassed in favour of temporary foreign workers (TFWs). They also say it could lead to wage deflation.

In the past few years, employers in the construction industry have ramped up recruitment of temporary foreign workers. The government has stressed the need for construction workers, including from abroad, to build more homes.

The Globe and Mail has compared applications to Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) for Labour Market Impact Assessments (LMIAs) from 2014 to 2021. (An LMIA is a document that shows a need for a foreign worker, allowing them to be hired to do a job no Canadian is available to do.)

From 2014 to 2016, the LMIA application forms asked if the position is part of a union, as well as if a union has been consulted about the hiring of a TFW. If employers have not consulted a union, they are asked to explain why.

LMIA application forms The Globe has seen from 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 still ask if the position is part of a union, but have dropped the other questions about consultation.

Jonathan Leighs, a B.C.-based organizer with the ironworkers international union, said there are many instances of employers being approved for TFWs, “despite there being workers available from the union hall.”

Mr. Leighs said he has raised the removal of the questions about consulting a union from the LMIA application with federal officials for six years. When contacted by The Globe, ESDC would not say when exactly the changes were made.

In March, Employment Minister Randy Boissonnault set out plans to reduce the number of TFWs, as part of a wider push to reduce temporary foreign residents. But he said the construction and health care sectors would be exempt. Immigration Minister Marc Miller has said that there is a need for foreign construction workers to address a shortage in the midst of the housing crisis and more should be given a path to permanent residence.

In 2023, companies were approved to hire roughly 5,300 construction helpers and labourers through the TFW program, according to a Globe analysis of positive LMIAs posted by ESDC. This represented an increase of around 800 per cent from approvals for these roles in 2019.

Employers have also been authorized to hire thousands of carpenters, welders, drywall installers and other skilled trades in recent years, part of a broader upswing in use of the TFW program. Companies in the construction industry are allowed to hire up to 30 per cent of their staff through the low-wage stream of the program; before a change in early 2022, the limit was 10 per cent.

Once they’re approved, companies can recruit foreigners to fill the positions, and those workers can get work permits to begin their jobs in Canada.

In a public discussion last month at a Canada’s Building Trades Unions conference in Gatineau, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was told by CBTU executive director Sean Strickland that local union halls are not consulted by employers before temporary workers are hired as they used to be.

“They would phone and say, ‘We have a temporary foreign worker application here. Do you have members available to go to work?’ And we would give them an answer and we’ve been able to turn them around and use Canadian workers instead of temporary foreign workers.

“That has stopped now,” he said.

Mr. Trudeau stressed that Canadian workers should have priority. ESDC said in a statement that employers must make efforts to hire Canadians and permanent residents before offering a job to a temporary foreign worker, for example, by advertising the role on the government employment site Job Bank, adding that they can consult unions for available labour.

Samuelle Carbonneau, an ESDC spokesperson, said policies under the TFW program “are continuously reviewed to ensure they reflect the latest economic conditions.”

“Under the TFW program’s policy on compensation, all employers are required to pay temporary foreign workers the ‘prevailing wage’ for that local job.“

There are currently more than 13,500 jobs advertised on Job Bank, where an employer has a LMIA or has applied for one to bring in a temporary foreign worker. They include ads for industrial electricians in Burnaby, B.C., and Cambridge, Ont.; a junior accountant in Grimsby, Ont.; a nail-care technician in Mission, B.C.; and a dump-truck driver in Surrey, B.C.

BC Building Trades executive director Brynn Bourke said posting a vacancy on Job Bank, before bringing in a foreign worker, was not a sure way to gauge if Canadians are available.

“Local unions should be consulted on labour supply and labour availability,” Ms. Bourke said. “If local workers are available, those LMIAs should be denied and workers should be hired.”

She said there used to be “a real, localized relationship” between the government and union offices when an LMIA application was processed to check if Canadians were available to do the job. That is now not the case in British Columbia, and consulting the local union is “certainly not written into the process.”

Ms. Bourke also raised fears that temporary foreign workers may be hired at lower pay than the prevailing union wage for a job.

Professor Rafael Gomez, director of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto, said his research has found that wage rates negotiated by construction unions, including for carpenters, sheet-metal workers and electricians, tend to be higher than wages listed on Job Bank.

He warned that the wage gap could create an incentive for employers seeking to reduce labour costs to recruit foreign workers instead of skilled Canadians.

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