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Heated political debate over government programs can often lead to strong policy responses. Over the past year, the federal government has moved to curtail the use, and potential abuse, of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. In its latest proposals on compliance, however, the government is stepping much further over the line.

What Canadians value in government is fairness and transparency. They want to know what the rules are and how to follow them. Intent on punishing wrong-doers, officials in the program are neglecting these Canadian values.

Make no mistake: the Canadian Chamber believes in punishing “bad actors” in the program. But the suggestion that even innocent businesses should be punished is unacceptable.

The risks of unfair treatment are high. First, the government intends to give enormous discretionary power to civil servants to impose punitive fines and sanctions. And they will do so without the kind of judicial oversight that is normal under administrative law.

Second, the government says it will treat any error as an attempt to mislead. The proposed rules specifically state there will be no consideration of errors made in “good faith” or “unintentional accounting or administrative errors” when imposing fines or banning someone from the program. Even if an employer makes and then corrects an administrative mistake (like miscalculating an employee’s vacation pay), they would be treated as if they were caught in an outright fraud.

This is a standard none of us can live up to – including a government department that has itself released incorrect data about companies that were reported in the media.

The potential harm public servants may inflict if the proposed regime is not changed is severe. The maximum fine for a violation will be $100,000. It could be multiplied against the number of foreign nationals employed. The government is not proposing any limit, so these fines could be high enough to destroy a business.

The TFW Program has suffered from poor administration. Now, employers trying to navigate through inconsistent and contradictory information from Service Canada will be risking unwarranted fines and even bans from the program.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program is controversial. But with these latest proposals, there is a real risk that Canadians may lose their jobs if employers are found non-compliant. No one wins in that sort of a scenario, least of all the Canadian workers who may find themselves unemployed because of the government’s actions.

Let’s take a breath and regain a little perspective. By all means, punish people who deliberately break the law, but most employers are trying to honestly follow the rules and are entitled to the presumption of innocence.

Foreign workers can be essential for a company’s success, but they are not a big group in our economy. Last year, 84,000 of them entered Canada to fill labour shortages – that’s less than one-half of one per cent (0.44%) in a labour force of 19 million. Ottawa approved every one of these applications.

Cracking down on abuses is fine. But innocent people should never be made collateral damage in the process.