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National News

Firms face fines on foreign worker plan fraud

OTTAWA - Firms that abuse the temporary foreign workers program to replace Canadian employees could face hefty penalties under changes proposed in the budget implementation bill introduced Friday.

The financial sanctions should be in place by early 2015, although the actual penalties have yet to be determined, said Alexandra Fortier, Employment Minister Jason Kenney's press secretary.

"There will be a range, but for serious abuse of the program there will be serious fines," Fortier said.

The measure is the latest in a series of attempts to put controls on the controversial program that gave the government a black eye last year after it was revealed companies were bringing in large numbers of foreign workers. Critics complained that in some cases, those workers were displacing their Canadian counterparts.

But the changes will mean little if the Conservative government proves unwilling to crack down on abusers, something it has not yet done, said NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen.

He noted that while the government had previously created a provision imposing a two-year ban on any employers found to break the rules, the so-called "black list," no firm has ever been sanctioned.

"When you talk about the ability to fine people, you have to catch them first and they are not catching them," Cullen said.

"The Conservatives created this mess, and now they bring in another measure saying they are going to crack down. Forgive me for being cynical, (but) they haven't done much of this in the past."

Fortier said while regulations need to be drafted, the intent is to punish firms that bring in temporary foreign workers under false pretences for jobs that could have been filled by Canadians, or to replace existing Canadian workers.

The program has come under increased scrutiny after news stories highlighted a series of abuses, including the revelation last spring that the Royal Bank displaced a number of Canadian workers after contracting out IT services to a foreign supplier. The bank apologized for the incident.

The other criticism of the program is that for some firms looking to pare back employee costs, it has become the first option in hiring, rather than the last.

Some estimates indicate the number of temporary workers in Canada doubled in seven years to about 340,000 as of December 2012, with the biggest growth coming in the years following the 2008-09 recession, when hundreds of thousands of Canadians were out of work.

In conjunction with last month's budget, the government published a "Jobs Report" claiming job vacancies in Canada were on the rise.

Earlier this week, however, the parliamentary budget officer said there was little evidence of systemic or countrywide job shortages or skills mismatches. The report also criticized the government's February report for its methodology and dependence on one set of data that included numbers from the online classified-ads website Kijiji.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney has in recent days appeared to distance himself from the Finance report, telling the House he agrees with the findings of the parliamentary budget office and those of Statistics Canada.

"I have said ... we need better information, that the Statistics Canada data does not support the contention of general labour shortages, that if there were general labour shortages, as some business organizations claim, then wage rates would have gone up faster than inflation since the global downturn, and they have not," he told the House on Thursday.

"However, we cannot ignore the data being supplied by many industry organizations and sector councils which indicate very acute skills shortages in particular regions and sectors."

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