Jason Kenney & the Temporary Foreign Worker Program: Will his past come back to haunt him?

By Evan Sumner

While Jason Kenney’s chances of being named leader of Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives on March 18th look good, his leadership bid could still be derailed by his reputation as the former Minister of Employment and Social Development. Particularly if you consider Mr. Kenney’s tumultuous relationship with the Federal Government’s controversial Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

Mr. Kenney was Minister during the 2014 overhaul of the TFWP. He championed the reforms that resulted in, among other things, the replacement of Labour Market Opinions (LMO) with the ostensibly stricter requirements of Labour Market Impact Assessments (LMIA). LMIA’s, like LMO’s before them, are required under the TFWP for an employer to hire temporary foreign workers. They are designed to verify the need for a temporary foreign worker and to ensure that no Canadians are available to do the work.

To some extent the reforms succeeded since, as reported by The Globe and Mail last August, the number of foreign worker approvals has been on the decline. In fact, the Liberals have been actively working on loosening some of the restrictions imposed during Mr. Kenney’s term as a means of combating the latter trend.

According to critics, however, any benefits that may have arisen from the 2014 TFWP reforms were completely undermined by the TFWP’s ongoing flaws. An op-ed written by a migrant worker and published in The Globe and Mail last May described the current work permit system as resulting in a “vicious cycle of abuse, exploitation and precariousness.” The ongoing issues with TFWP and the general behaviour of Kenney’s old department, who in the months leading up to the reforms broke promises to be more vigilant by failing to inspect a single employer for TFWP abuses, have unsurprisingly raised the question of whether Kenney’s reforms did any good or whether they were just intended to deflate a political crisis.

Mr. Kenney’s department approved thousands of LMO/LMIA’s during his term as Minister of Employment and Social Development; many in the 6 months following the TFWP reforms. One advocacy group, Canadians Against the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (CATFWP), has suggested Mr. Kenney all but ensured the labour market was flooded by cheap labour. In CATFWP’s view, Mr. Kenney cares more about profits for industry than jobs for Canadians or the rights of migrant workers. A conclusion, they argue, that’s reinforced by the type and timing of the LMO/LMIA’s Kenney approved as Minister. A striking example they give is the large number of LMIA approvals for oil and gas companies during the 2014 oil price slump; a time when many Canadians were in desperate need of jobs.

Yet, CATFWP’s allegations are at best conjecture. So, for the time being anyway, their significance rests mostly in what they represent rather than in their content. That is, an ongoing source of public frustration that has the potential to seriously undermine Kenney’s popularity at a time when that’s all that matters. A time when being plagued by past controversies could easily undermine his success as leader of Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives; if it doesn’t undo his current bid for leadership first.