Working holiday programs for thousands of foreign youth – often touted by the Conservative government as a positive element of the controversial temporary foreign worker program – risk boosting youth unemployment at home, internal Citizenship and Immigration documents say.

The International Experience Canada initiative allows tens of thousands of young people to work in Canada each year without requiring employers to pay prevailing wages or prove Canadians could not be found for the jobs.

It is the largest area of the controversial temporary foreign worker program, and Conservative Minister Jason Kenney has frequently invoked it to counter criticism of the broader program. Australians working in Whistler are a common example Mr. Kenney cites.

However, labour groups paint the program in a more negative light, saying employers use it to staff construction sites with low-paid workers who lack proven qualifications.

Internal documents recently released through Access to Information show a senior official at Citizenship and Immigration pointed out the potential for such programs to hurt domestic employment.

David Wright, who was senior policy adviser at the department’s headquarters, noted in an e-mail in August, 2013, what he described as “interesting” results from an Australian survey of a similar program.

“It is young local workers who are the main losers in the competition for employment. This is especially the case for those without post-school education, who are seeking less skilled, entry-level jobs,” the e-mail stated, quoting a report from Australia’s Centre for Population and Urban Research.

The government documents were obtained by immigration lawyer Richard Kurland. The Citizenship and Immigration department did not respond to questions about the documents by late Tuesday.

Mr. Kenney has insisted “these nice young people on their working holiday programs” are not a threat to Canada’s labour market.

“I think it’s a pretty benign subset of the temporary foreign worker program,” he said during a 2013 debate in the House of Commons.

Doug Parton, spokesman for Ironworkers Local 97 in British Columbia, said Canadians would be outraged to see the way employers use the working holiday program on job sites.

“With this one, they can pay them whatever,” he said, describing the government’s 2014 reforms as a “shell game” that leaves a clear path for employers to bring in temporary foreign workers.

“There’s no checks and balances to say, ‘Yeah, this guy actually is an iron worker or a pipefitter or a millwright,’” he said.

Mr. Kenney is now Employment and Social Development Minister. He and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced a major overhaul of the temporary foreign worker program in June, 2014, after allegations of abuse.

The changes effectively split the program in two, adding major restrictions and hurdles for employers seeking temporary foreign workers for low-skilled jobs, which were already a relatively small part of the program.

International Experience Canada, the much larger category, was left largely untouched. Canadian employers can hire participants without going through a screening process called Labour Market Opinions that is meant to ensure efforts are made to hire Canadians.

The government has noted that working holiday programs are reciprocal deals that allow Canadians to work in 32 other countries, but it has acknowledged few Canadian youth have taken advantage of it, noting at the time of last year’s reforms that the imbalance “is the most serious concern for this initiative.”

The number of people working in Canada as of Dec. 1 of each year under the program has grown from 25,891 in 2006 to a high of 58,933 in 2012. The numbers dropped in 2013 to 56,313. In contrast, only 17,731 Canadians worked abroad under the program in 2012. Most programs have age limits of 30 or 35.

The Canadian unemployment rate for youth aged 15 to 24 was 13 per cent in November, compared to the national unemployment rate of 6.6 per cent.

Editor’s note: a previous version of this story indicated the TFW program was for students; it is, in fact, for all youth and not limited to students.

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail – (includes correction)
Published Wednesday, Jan. 07 2015, 3:00 AM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Jan. 07 2015, 8:46 AM EST