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Les Leyne: Bond ponders foreign-worker registry

Labour Minister Shirley Bond says the B.C. government is contemplating opening a provincial registry of employers who are using temporary foreign workers, given the intense recent interest in the program.

Labour Minister Shirley Bond says the B.C. government is contemplating opening a provincial registry of employers who are using temporary foreign workers, given the intense recent interest in the program.

If they get around to executing the idea that’s been kicked around for a year or more, the government and all manner of public institutions will find themselves well represented on the list. The Ministry of Children and Families has some employees classified as temporary foreign workers. Most of the health authorities, including Vancouver Island’s, have them. Northern Lights College, B.C. Cancer Agency, B.C. Women’s Hospital and the Public Guardian and Trustee use them.

The major universities all have temporary foreign workers. The University of B.C. has about two dozen departments registered as employing them.

New Democrat MLA Bruce Ralston read them all into the record this week while canvassing Bond on the curious position the B.C. government finds itself in.

Which is: standing on the sidelines and having no responsibility for a program that is drawing a lot of heat. The Opposition has taken quite a few swipes at the B.C. Liberals for the problems that have come to light with the program. But it’s a federal creation and a federal responsibility. Provincial governments offer some vague input on labour market trends and needs, but the federal government runs the program from start to finish.

The Liberals got a little uncomfortable two years ago when a mining firm planned to import 200 Chinese miners under the program, a plan the government supported. Then the Royal Bank was found to be supplanting Ontarians with the program. Then three franchised Victoria McDonald’s restaurants were charged by the federal government with abusing the program, and the heat was turned up again.

The government’s official position is that temporary foreign workers are welcome in B.C., but only if they are used as a last resort, after all B.C. residents have had a chance at the jobs available. But the government is pursuing an industrial strategy that requires hundreds of thousands of workers. So many expect the last resort to be used routinely.

Ralston took no particular issue with the number of public institutions using temporary foreign workers.

“Obviously there are conceivably many legitimate explanations … visiting professors, graduate students... researchers who come from other countries for a certain period.”

But he was surprised at the number and range of people who are employed by public bodies as temporary foreign workers.

Bond gave a breakdown of the B.C. situation, relying entirely on federal numbers. There are 74,345 TFWs in B.C. at last count. Almost 30,000 are under the youth reciprocal program (think Aussie ski-lift attendants). Academics are the next highest category (9,000). The smallest category of use is called the low-skilled sector. It’s three per cent of the total, about 2,100 people.

That’s the sector that’s providing the most controversy at the moment, prompting suspicion that employers are bypassing B.C. and Canadian citizens to hire foreigners. It might be the least-used category, but reliance there seems to be increasing. A private website that tracks the issue ( found that of 511 B.C. employers who got permits over one year, 107 of them were food outlets in metro Vancouver. That industry is now suspended from using it.

Bond said she’s “acutely aware” of the public’s interest in transparency, so she asked staff some time ago to look at models elsewhere in Canada where provincial governments have more involvement in the program. Manitoba requires employers to register provincially and Alberta maintains an active watch of sorts on the program.

“I have asked for a number of options to be presented to me about whether or not we look at a registry,” Bond said.

The Opposition took another run at the government in Tuesday’s question period for supporting the program, saying it drives down wages and gets in the way of B.C. youth. If Bond gets tired of being seen to support something so problematic, she might decide to get more deeply involved in order to fix it.

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