Government can’t explain why it’s allowing more foreign workers in, nor is it keeping them safe once they arrive, report says

Bill Curry

They keep Alberta’s oil sands pumping, build up Vancouver for the Olympics and care for the children of working parents across the country, but the Auditor-General warns that Ottawa can’t explain why it its allowing more temporary, low-skilled, foreign workers into Canada – nor is it keeping these people safe.

In an extensive assessment of the state of Canada’s immigration system, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser reports major shifts are taking place in the type of immigrants coming to Canada.

She also said the temporary worker program is growing in spite of internal concerns of fraud and abuse. Some Canadian employers are using the program to bring in their relatives, she told reporters.

“It looks a little suspicious on the face of it,” citing a scenario in which a small business with revenues of $20,000 could sponsor an employee – who is also a relative – at a $40,000 salary.

The report notes that Canadian immigration is moving away from a federal system in which points are awarded to applicants with high-level skills. Instead, Ottawa is handing over more responsibility for immigration to the provinces with little knowledge of who the provinces are bringing in.

The Auditor-General also reviewed the impact of controversial new powers awarded to Canada’s immigration minister that were included and passed as part of the Conservative government’s 2008 budget bill.

“We found that the Department [of Citizenship and Immigration] has made a number of key decisions in recent years without properly assessing their costs and benefits, potential risks, and likely impact on programs,” Ms. Fraser told reporters at a news conference Tuesday. “Some of these decisions have caused a significant shift in the types of foreign workers being admitted permanently to Canada. There is little evidence that this shift is part of any well-defined strategy to best meet the needs of the Canadian labour market.”

From 2002 to 2008, the number of temporary work permit applications received abroad rose to 204,783, an increase of 124 per cent.

Ms. Fraser’s report warns that no reviews are taking place to ensure temporary work permits are issued for jobs that actually exist, leaving the foreign workers vulnerable to abuse and fraud.

The legislative change gave the minister of immigration broad powers to define the type of immigrants who would be approved and to allow those coveted applicants to jump to the front of the queue.

In her first use of these new powers, a November, 2008, order by then-Immigration Minister Diane Finley dropped the list of eligible occupations from 351 to 38. However many applicants weren’t aware of this change and the department must now issue about 45,000 refunds to people all around the world.

The auditor’s call for a more thorough and clear federal immigration policy comes as current Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is saying he is on the verge of releasing just that. Mr. Kenney has said his department is preparing major initiatives that will better define Canada’s plans and tackle fraud in the system.

The Auditor-General’s report warns the early evidence shows the Conservative government’s 2008 change is not having the desired effect of reducing applications to help Canada address its large backlog of requests.

Further, Ms. Fraser concludes that the minister’s changes appear to have been made without proper study or rationale.

“[The immigration department] could not show us how it settled on reducing the number of admissible occupations as a criterion for eligibility, or any analysis of the extent to which this criterion would help reduce the number of new applications,” states the audit report. “Nor did it provide us with any analysis of its associated risks and its potential impact on the delivery of the program.”

The changes were supposed to reduce the backlog. The Auditor-General warned in a 1999 report that the backlog of immigration applications by skilled workers and their families stood at 330,000 people. As of Dec. 31, 2008, there were more than 620,000 people in this category and the average processing time was 63 months.

This backlog is a key factor in explaining why employers are increasingly turning to the low-skilled temporary worker program and the provincial nominee program to fill positions more quickly.

While overall Canadian immigration levels have remained steady over the past decade, clear changes have developed in terms of how people are immigrating under the “economic class” criteria. Minimum target levels for the Federal Skilled Worker category – which is based on a points system – dropped 31 per cent between 2004 and 2009. The difference has been made up by an increase of almost 471 per cent in the target for the Provincial Nominee Program.

The report notes that the Provincial Nominee Program could soon become the largest source of economic immigrants in Canada, while the target level for the Federal Skilled Worker category could be as low as 18,000 in 2012, down from a minimum target level of 68,200 in 2009.

The report notes that Ottawa currently does not impose any minimum standards on workers selected by the provinces and calls for these programs to be reviewed.

Provincial auditors-general in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island have all warned that the program is failing to track whether workers brought in by a province actually stay in that province.

Download the Auditor General’s report entitled, Selecting Foreign Workers Under the Immigration Program

Reference: The Globe and Mail