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TORONTO, May 1 (Reuters) - Bugan Wigan could handle the hard work packing fruit and cleaning hotel rooms, and the crushing debt she owed recruiters who found her jobs. But a backlash against the foreign worker program that brought her to Canada means the clock is ticking on her ability to support her family in the Philippines.
"I'm here six years, away from my family. I was hoping I could bring them here. But now, we are just counting our days," said Wigan, 40, who currently works at McDonald's in Vancouver.
She is one of about 400,000 people who came to Canada under the government's temporary foreign worker program, which is designed to fill jobs for which there are no qualified Canadian candidates. The program has been hugely popular with employers, ballooning from 100,000 workers in 2002.
But the backlash against it has also grown as the program, initially designed to help the booming resource industry, has expanded to lower-skilled jobs, especially at restaurant chains such as McDonald's Corp and Tim Hortons Inc
Last week, the Conservative government slapped a moratorium on the food service industry hiring temporary foreign workers after media reports said that some restaurants had turned away qualified Canadians in favor of using foreigners to fill job openings.
Employment Minister Jason Kenney has acknowledged some abuses of the system and last year began tightening up the rules for employers to participate in the program. He has promised more changes.
Caught in the middle are workers like Wigan, who harbored dreams of using the program as a springboard to permanent residency. While the program is explicitly designed to be temporary, some workers have been able to use provisions that allow for longer stays. Those loopholes appear to be closing as the government moves to contain the backlash against the hiring of temporary foreign workers.
Anna, a Croatian woman who did not want to use her real name for fear the government will track her down, was devastated by Ottawa's decision last week to impose a moratorium on restaurant hiring of foreign temporary workers.
Armed with a university degree in agriculture and strong English, she found work at a cafe just 10 days after arriving in Toronto in 2012, and has worked there ever since. She now expects to be out of a job when her permit expires in December.
"For me, it is just the worst. I came here legally, did my part, paid my taxes, and now they don't allow me to keep going," said Anna, 29, blonde hair tucked up under a black fedora, as she took a break from serving coffee and sandwiches at the busy cafe in Toronto's fashion district.
"In Croatia, Canada is viewed as an amazing, welcoming country, but when you come here, you encounter problems like this," she said, tearing up when she talks about the mother she left behind in exchange for a steady job that pays C$12 ($10.93)an hour and offers a dream of a better life.
Her boss is also upset. Like many business owners, he sees the program providing him with a hard-working, reliable workforce less prone to quitting when something better comes along. Workers who, as one industry group said, are willing to work the late shift.
"Where are (Canadians) when we put an ad in the paper? Why don't they want to come early in the morning? They are not there," said Ali, owner of three Toronto cafes that use temporary foreign workers. He did not want to be named for fear of a backlash against his businesses.
As far as paying a higher wage to keep staff, Ali said it's a nice idea "as long as I can sell my sandwiches for C$42. I would love to pay them the highest possible."
With a national unemployment rate of 6.9 percent and joblessness as low as 4.5 percent and 4.9 percent in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, many employers complain of a shortage of skilled or willing workers, especially in the mining and energy industries.
But youth unemployment is 13.6 percent, and critics of the program believe the use of foreign workers in low-skilled jobs boosts unemployment and suppresses wages. They say it gives employers access to a cheaper, more desperate worker, ripe for abuse and without a path to permanent residency or citizenship.
"The whole program is set up to create a class of people who have fewer rights. The program is innately exploitative," said Yessy Byl, a human rights worker at the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre.
Byl, who has worked as an advocate for foreign workers for years, has heard of many kinds of abuse at the hands of Canadian employers who prefer the reliability of foreign workers to the whims of highly mobile Canadian workers in a strong economy.
"I don't know which story is the worst," Byl said, noting one example of Filipino hotel workers fired when they tried to move out of the house their employer wanted them to live in with 16 others, and another of a Mexican laborer gruesomely injured in his first, untrained, encountered with a chainsaw.
Many unions are also scathing in their criticism of employers who use foreign workers to avoid paying wages that Canadians would accept.
"Why can't they pay some more money to Canadian staff if that is their problem?" asked Joseph Maloney, vice-president at the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. "But they pay minimum wages, starvation wages, so that gives them an excuse to bring in temporary foreign workers who don't know better ... and it's just wrong."
Immigration lawyer Vanessa Routley, who works mostly with employers looking for petroleum workers, doesn't buy the argument that Canadians are being cheated out of jobs.
"I really don't think it has any basis in reality. We are not raised to aspire to clean hotel rooms," she said.
Routley's fear now is for those foreigners who are already in Canada, working legally but facing the expiration of their permits. She believes many will try to stay illegally, putting themselves at even greater risk of abuse.
"Most of them don't have much to return to, so by making it impossible for them to stay legally, we are forcing them to go underground, in which case the risks of being mistreated are far more than without the protections under this program."
Migrant advocacy groups are calling for the government to process pending work permit applications and to offer a way for workers already in Canada to make the transition to permanent residency, providing a lifeline to those left in the lurch.
Wigan, who says she is happy at McDonald's, holds out little hope something will happen to allow her to stay and be reunited in Canada with her 12-year-old son, who lives with her husband in the Philippines.
"If I am not able to get my permanent residency, I will have to leave in October 2015. I don't think I have any choice."
$1=$1.10 Canadian Additional reporting by Julie Gordon in Vancouver; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway