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'Targeted exemptions' for TFWs -- Tory fund-raiser, backyard maquiladoras, or both?

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Jason Kenney

ST. ALBERT, Alberta

Unemployment has climbed to 7.1 per cent in Canada and yet a key segment of the Harper Government's donor base is screeching for more Temporary Foreign Workers. What to do?

From the perspective of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, this is a serious problem. Too many Canadians remain unpersuaded by the hysterical campaign cranked up by the country's retail business sector to turn the TFW spigot back to full, and to do it right now, lest … well, lest something really bad happens.

Not satisfied by mere wage-suppression -- delivered in spades by the federal government -- now they're hooked on a steady supply of powerless and compliant workers from abroad.

Fast-food restaurant owners have threatened everything from cutting back the number of coffees they serve after 3 a.m. to trimming their charitable donations, and yet the general public seems unshaken by their warnings. Maybe the usual suspects can blame the education system: here in Alberta our teachers still seem to be teaching their charges how to do the math.

Behind closed doors, have no doubt about it, the TFW lobby is telling the Harper Cons that the spigot that’s actually going to be shut off if they don't get their way, and soon, with the flow of easily coerced and underpaid foreign workers fully restored, is the one full of money they send to Conservative Party coffers.

The Harper Government’s Solomonic answer? "Targeted exemptions," which according to the Canadian Press means Employment Minister Jason Kenney will consider fewer restrictions on a steady flow of TFWs "in specific areas with very low levels of unemployment in regions with a higher level."

That's vague enough it should be possible for any fast-food business owner to claim a special unemployment zone around his or her store sufficiently low to set up a backyard maquiladora anywhere in Canada -- successfully suppressing wages despite market realities while enabling Conservative politicians to make soothing noises to Canadians that all is well with the rigorously enforced TFW Program.

I await publication of the Harper Government's clear and accessible rules for these regulatory exemption zones with interest.

Meantime, the usual suspects in the campaign to suppress wages by hiring no one but TFWs -- thus eliminating the need to deal with uppity Canadians and their propensity to insist they have workplace rights -- are starting to snarl at more people than their Conservative MPs.

Back in April, the Alberta Director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, an AstroTurf group that purports to represent the interests of small business owners and has been at the forefront of the fight for unlimited use of TFWs, was pleading for reasoned discourse to prevail.

"It's time to dial down the rhetoric and have an informed conversation about labour shortages, skills training for Canadian workers, new government strategies to match employers with qualified employees, and fixing the permanent immigration system to ensure it matches the current and future labour force needs within the economy," Richard Truscott wrote in the vast expanse of free space donated to him by the Calgary Herald, a once-great newspaper that nowadays appears to rely on full-time right-wing agitators from groups with mysterious funding sources to report the news.

The targets of his call for sweet reason? "Some union leaders" whom he said had "turned their rhetoric dial all the way up to shrill, and are calling for the program to be scrapped."

Well, as I've said before, it's still a free country, after a fashion, so you can call that shrill if you like.

But just yesterday, Truscott -- sounding a little shrill himself -- was accusing this blogger via Tweet of "profound ignorance" of how small businesses operate. My offence was daring to challenge the hysterics of the TFW lobby to produce even one Alberta business that's had to go out of business because of a shortage of TFWs.

They can't because there are none. But Truscott promised fast-food businesses won't disappear overnight for want of a TFW, but some will … someday.

My question remains the same: "If the market's so great, what's wrong with the market?" That, in turn, leads inevitably to a prescription: Pay a living wage and employees will find their way to you.

All the pro-TFW crowd has to offer are anecdotal tales about how hard they're trying to find Canadians to work in their restaurants, and how few of these ungrateful wretches respond to their calls.

So here's a little equally unscientific anecdotal evidence of my own, from right here in St. Albert where our more-Tory-than-the-Tories Independent MP claims to be inundated by pleas for more TFWs from local fast-food business owners who insist Canadians won't apply for the jobs they need to fill.

I looked in the Saturday edition of the local twice-weekly newspaper. There were only 13 help-wanted ads, not one of them from a fast-food restaurant.

Can't find local kids willing to work in their stores? Maybe they need to look a little harder.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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