Review of Temporary Foreign Workers Program rare climbdown for Harper government

Usually when the Conservative government comes under pressure for one of its policies, standard operating procedure is to circle the wagons, hunker down and exchange fire with its critics.

So the Harper government's reaction to questions about how its Temporary Foreign Worker Program operates seems all the more surprising. It's ordered a review.

Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley issued a statement Thursday saying questions surrounding the hiring of more than 200 Chinese coal miners to work on a new northeastern B.C. mine shows the program needs to be looked at.

"In particular, we are not satisfied that sufficient efforts were made to recruit or train Canadians interested in these jobs," Finley said. "Specifically, the requirement that applicants have skills in a foreign language does not appear to be linked to a genuine job requirement.

"It is clear to our government that there are some problems with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. We take these very seriously and are currently reviewing the program. Litigation could impede this work and lead to court battles rather than a genuine fix."

The litigation the minister referred to was an application by a group of B.C. labour unions for a Federal Court injunction to block permits for Chinese miners to work on the Murray River coal mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

The project's backers, HD Mining of Vancouver and Chinese investor Canadian Dehua International Mines Group, argued workers who were expert in long-wall coal mining were needed for the initial phase of development and not enough Canadians were qualified as yet. The Chinese workers would be replaced over the years as Canadians were trained for the work.

[ Related: Imported Chinese coal miners have B.C. labour unions up in arms ]

One of the contentious issues was a reference in online job postings for the project that knowledge of Mandarin would be an asset for applicants, effectively excluding most Canadian miners. An HD spokesperson later said the language requirement was posted in error, the Globe and Mail reported.

Critics also pointed to the demand that job applicants pay thousands of dollars recruitment fees — illegal in B.C. — as evidence the program wasn't properly regulated.

Postmedia News reported the Murray River project is one of four proposed by a consortium of Chinese companies working with Canadian Dehua that could provided jobs for between 1,600 and almost 2,000 Chinese workers.

The United Steelworkers, one of the unions applying for the court injunction, welcomed the government's review.

"The government is finally doing the right thing," Steelworkers Western Canada director Steve Hunt, said in a news release. "Since the beginning, this story just didn't add up. We strongly believe that the foreign workers program is being abused, not just in this case but in a number of different ways."

But another union leader was skeptical the government would conduct a meaningful review.

"Trusting the government to this point has been a failure," Lee Loftus of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 114 and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union Local 1611, told The Tyee.

The government had previously rejected the unions' legal application to cancel the Chinese miners' work permits and disclose details of the labour market opinions used to grant them, The Tyee reported.

Loftus claimed the government is hiding something because it doesn't want the information released.

"That tells us people are being dishonest about how they're getting applications done and that labour market opinions are probably tainted across the board no matter where we go and that the system is in a complete failure," he said.

There's some question, too, about the scope of the review. Finley's statement suggested the whole program would be under scrutiny. But The Tyee reported that an official in her department indicated to it that only the Murray River project would be reviewed.

Postmedia News reported the program brought a record 190,842 temporary workers into Canada last year, up 56 per cent from 2005, the year before the Conservatives first took power.

In all, there were 446,847 temporary foreign workers in Canada last year, roughly double the 224,051 in 2005. British Columbia accounts for about a quarter of the total.

Temporary foreign workers are found in all sectors of the economy, from agriculture to meat packing and fast-fast food restaurants, the Globe and Mail noted.

[ Related: Alberta labour group slams fast-tracking of foreign workers ]

The government program was designed to help employers cope with a shortage of workers but labour groups are concerned Canada is becoming to reliant on foreign workers when it should be encouraging more domestic job training.

"Aside from announcing a review, the federal government must take immediate steps to demonstrate that it truly believes Canadians must always have first crack at job opportunities in Canada," said Steve Hunt of the Steelworkers.