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Do foreign workers do jobs Canadians refuse?

OTTAWA - Amid the uproar of yet another temporary foreign worker scandal, some observers insist that many Canadians in various regions of the country simply won't work the jobs coveted by those eager to start a new life in Canada.

Hotel chambermaids and restaurant workers, particularly in regions of the country struggling with labour shortages, are among the positions that small businesses are having trouble filling, said Daniel Kelly, head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

"If we're not prepared to do these jobs, and we don't want our kids to do them either — yet we still want to go to the mall and find a clean bathroom and we still want someone to clean our hotel rooms — why are we so afraid to allow people to come to Canada to happily do these jobs?" Kelly said Wednesday.

"Why wouldn't we allow that to happen?"

Many employers say temporary foreign workers work harder than their Canadian counterparts, said Kelly — they volunteer to work long hours, weekends and holidays in order to improve their lot in life and perhaps increase their chances of a permanent life in Canada.

Homegrown employees often lack that dedication to performing what they consider menial labour, he said.

"Employer after employer is telling us they have tons of workers who don't show up for shifts, don't call, and when they finally show up, they have a very questionable excuse for their absence," Kelly said.

"I don't blame the young Canadian graduating with a liberal arts degree for having no enthusiasm for this kind of work. But that doesn't help the quick-service restaurant owner who needs hard-working staff."

Kelly's comments came as Employment Minister Jason Kenney alluded to the problem again Wednesday in the House of Commons, reading out a 1-800 snitch line that Canadians can call to report any businesses they suspect are illegally hiring temporary foreign workers.

As the NDP called for an emergency debate into temporary foreign workers, Kenney told the House that an MP with the party had approached him just this week to complain about a lack of hotel workers in his northern Ontario riding.

One hotel's application to hire temporary foreign workers was refused because it was not offering the "prevailing regional wage rate," Kenney said.

"This MP asked me to intervene. I said: 'No, we are going to stick by the rules.' We are going to do everything we can to ensure that Canadians always come first; that the temporary foreign worker program is only and always a last resort."

Earlier this week, Kenney said the owner of three McDonald's locations in Victoria, B.C., could face criminal prosecution if investigators conclude he provided false information on an application to hire temporary foreign workers.

Ottawa has already suspended all pending foreign worker permits for the restaurants until the investigation is completed.

A numbered company in Newfoundland and Labrador, the owner of a trio of fast-food restaurants, was suspended this week for the same reason, as was a numbered company in Fenelon Falls, Ont., that operates a local restaurant in Ontario's cottage country.

Kelly said his federation fully supports cracking down on employers who fail to hire Canadians when they're available. But he also suggested that some small businesses may be turning to temporary foreign workers out of desperation.

"Try to find a hotel in Canada that has an easy time finding people to clean rooms," he said. "People are not lining up for those jobs in Canada — but we want clean hotel rooms."

Jason Foster, an expert on temporary foreign workers at Alberta's Athabasca University, said employers have a simple solution at hand — increase wages, enhance benefits and improve working conditions to make those jobs more attractive to Canadian workers.

"There's no question that the sectors that depend on temporary foreign workers are not the most desirable jobs, but they're not desirable in their current state," Foster said.

"The question we need to ask is, what happens when you increase the wages and improve the living and working conditions of these employees?"

Foster said his research indeed bears out the notion that temporary foreign workers are more dedicated employees.

"They're very hardworking; but they see these jobs differently than we do. They're only here to work. They are disconnected; what else are they going to do on weekends? The feeling is that they might as well work," he said.

"It's not because they're inherently better workers, it's because they have very different motivations ... but is that the type of labour market we want? The employer will always want more, but is that a legitimate ask? We should be building the type of society where people appreciate their lives and call in sick when they are actually sick."

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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