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Cullen: Northwest businesses worried about temporary foreign worker cutbacks

It seems it's not just potential LNG projects that have Prince Rupert residents surrounded in uncertainty.

On his recent trip to Prince Rupert and Terrace, Skeena - Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen spoke with a number of his constituents and one of the most common concerns they had regarded the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the magnitude of which is being scaled back through a series of caps on the program to the point where its elimination may be considered in the coming years.

"There's been a key switch or pendulum swing on the ... program. [The federal government] has somehow managed to make everybody unhappy; employers, people who are fighting for the rights of temporary foreign workers and those of us that believe if we're short in terms of workers in this country then we should do something about our broken immigration program," said Cullen.

The program, which was launched in 1973 and allows companies to fill jobs using non-Canadians, has been put into the spotlight over allegations of abuse and improper usage by program participants. The industries affected are many, including low-skilled to high-skilled positions. British Columbia employed 74, 219 temporary foreign workers as of December, 2012, the second-highest totals for any province or territory in Canada behind only Ontario, whose figures totalled 119, 903.

"I've certainly had a number of calls from employers who are through-the-roof angry because it's created a lot of uncertainty. Some of them have temporary foreign workers now working for them that they can't renew or have to send back," said Cullen.

The office of Employment Minister Jason Kenney responded with comment pointing out that Cullen and the rest of the NDP had voted in favour of an immediate moratorium on the stream for lower-skilled occupations, which includes fast-food, service and restaurant jobs on an April 30 vote of this year.

"He asked and voted for something that would have been even more invasive for businesses [than the changes we've already made]," said Alexandra Fortier, press secretary for Kenney.

"When there are cases of abusing employees we nail those companies to the wall; the ones that are mistreating people and not paying them and all the rest, those are human rights violations and the government has turned a blind eye [to those complaints]," said Cullen.

It's not just employers who are concerned about the fate of the program, either. Cullen said he encountered quite a bit of hand-wringing on the part of the workers themselves as well.

"Some of them owe money that these scoundrels that charge them money to secure a job in Canada. [The companies] end up charging them thousands and thousands of dollars and they have to pay that back. It's a form of indentured labour, and [the workers] are incredibly nervous," he said.

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