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Let foreign workers stay, Alberta urges

Calgary, AlbertaImage via Wikipedia

Settlement through immigration will help ease labour shortage, minister argues

With another boom just around the corner, it's time to shift away from reliance on temporary foreign workers and concentrate on immigration, says Thomas Lukaszuk, Alberta's minister of immigration and employment.
Lukaszuk is ready to push the federal government to allow more immigrants from among the 30,000 temporary workers now in the province, offering them a chance to settle with their families.
Employers facing labour shortages would also be happy because they could keep workers they have spent the last few years training, he said. Lukaszuk's first priority is to make sure Canadians in underemployed groups, such as First Nations and the disabled, are "fully engaged" in the workforce. "But at the end of the day, even if we naively think we will get 100-percent employment in those groups, we will still be short of workers," he said.
Last year, Lukaszuk ordered a review of the temporary working program by parliamentary assistant Teresa Woo Paw. Her report assessing the effectiveness of the program will be released in a month. The Calgary MLA spent a year hearing from employers and other interested parties on the issue.
Lukaszuk said he's ready to "raise the volume" on this issue with the federal government.
He hopes to garner support from his provincial counterparts in preparation for a ministers' meeting this fall.
"The federal government took in 280,000 new immigrants this year, the highest number ever, and that's great," he said.
"But that record intake didn't make a dent in the 360,000 temporary workers in the country."
Since that number has been steady in recent years, it's clear the demand for workers isn't just short-term, he said.
At the height of the boom in 2006, Alberta had more than 60,000 temporary foreign workers -the highest per capita of any province. Many worked on oilsands projects, but a lot of them left when the economic downturn hit in December 2008.
Recent federal government legislation has made the temporary foreign worker program less attractive Lukaszuk said.
Under the new rules, temporary foreign workers can spend a maximum of four years in Canada, and then must leave for four years before reapplying for another fouryear term.
Previously, a permit issued for two years was renewable several times if the employer could prove the worker was needed.
The new four-year rule means welltrained workers will leave Alberta to go to other industrialized countries, not back home to the Philippines or Ukraine, Lukaszuk said.
Alberta got a wake-up call a few weeks ago when Australian mining companies came to Edmonton to recruit all kinds of workers, including engineers and skilled tradesmen.
Australian employers are offering immigration status to anyone who takes a job. That's a big advantage over Canada and Alberta, Lukaszuk said.
"When I go to Germany to recruit welders, I can tell them they can only come for four years," he said. The only way to currently offer permanent residency to temporary foreign workers is under the provincial nominee program.
Larry Staples of the Alberta Construction Association said his industry will need more immigrants and temporary foreign workers to meet demand for planned oilsands projects.
At the height of the boom in 2006, the construction industry brought in about 7,000 skilled tradesmen, "but these days, that's down to almost zero," Staples said. People from overseas and Eastern Canada left the province in droves, he said.
"Now we're looking at ramping up again. We need to turn up the burner on immigration for the skills we need and make sure they come to Alberta and don't stay in Toronto or Montreal.
"We need to get more skilled immigration to the province."
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said he was pleased Lukaszuk wants to move away for temporary foreign workers.
But he said it's not clear the federal government will listen.
spratt@edmontonjournal.com

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