UPDATE 2-Canada restaurants buck foreign worker program changes

Fri May 16, 2014 3:40pm EDT

(Recast with industry reaction, confirmation of details)

By Randall Palmer and Louise Egan

OTTAWA May 16 (Reuters) - Possible changes to make it harder to bring temporary foreign workers into Canada may force some restaurants to curb their hours or even shut down, and could hamper important exports if not properly structured, employers groups warned on Friday.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander on Thursday bandied about with employers and unions several ideas for reforming the temporary foreign worker program, which has recently come under enormous criticism.

Participants said options discussed in the meeting included increased government fees for guest workers and requiring employers to pay them more. Others included numerical caps on permits, limiting access in areas of high unemployment and differentiating more between business sectors.

The situation has exploded into one of the top issues facing the government because of stories of foreign workers displacing Canadians at some McDonald's Corp restaurants, complaints from Canadians unable to find jobs, and word of some guest workers being mistreated by their bosses.

The trade group Restaurants Canada was alarmed by the idea of a wage floor for temporary foreign workers, possibly higher than the prevailing wage, and sharply higher government fees.

"To price these temporary foreign worker jobs so high that there's no way that our restaurants will have access to them is going to be really problematic," said Joyce Reynolds, who attended the meeting.

She said a temporary moratorium that Kenney slapped on the restaurant sector last month was already causing "a real feeling of desperation" among restaurant owners in places like Edmonton, capital of the oil province of Alberta.

Kenney did not say what the government should charge for temporary foreign workers but mentioned the possibility of "a dissuasive fee like in the U.S," one participant said. The United States can charge $2,325 or more in combined fees compared with the C$275 ($252) currently charged in Canada, plus a visa fee often of C$150.

Jayson Myers, president of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, distanced himself from the restaurants, saying no company should build its business model around the temporary foreign worker program.

But Myers opposed punitive government fees, and said crucial exporters like car manufacturers could be adversely affected by proposed changes. Windsor, Ontario - Canada's car capital - has high unemployment but Myers said automakers needed to be able to bring in foreign technicians sometimes for as short as a week to retool a plant or to train.

Canada's largest private-sector union, Unifor, said reforms to refocus the program onto skilled labor would restore credibility. "This will stop the back-alley shop from bringing in somebody to flip burgers ... they're not going to pay thousands of dollars to bring them over and then pay above the going wage," Unifor President Jerry Dias said.

Chris Roberts of the Canadian Labour Congress, however, said no amount of tinkering with fees would address the "built-in exploitation and abuse" foreign workers face since they are tied to one employer and therefore unable to switch companies.

($1=$1.09 Canadian) (Editing by Tom Brown)

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