EDMONTON - Alberta New Democrats say a growing number of temporary foreign workers in the province are being ripped off by their employers.

The NDP released government records Wednesday that show up to 74 per cent of inspected businesses that employ workers from overseas have been violating labour laws. The infractions include not paying for overtime, statutory holidays and vacation time earned.

"These are not minor paperwork problems. These violations are substantial and they hurt workers and their families," said NDP member of the legislature Rachel Notley.

"This is exploitation pure and simple, and that's not what Alberta is about."

A few years ago, the government increased the number of temporary foreign workers who could come to the province because employers were having difficulty filling jobs in the economic boom. And even with the recent downturn, some employers still find it difficult to hire people for lower-paying, service-sector jobs.

The federal government's foreign worker program entitles employees to stay in Canada for the duration of their work permit, which can be up to two years.

The New Democrats estimate the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada increased from just over 100,000 in 2004 to over 250,000 last year. The number in Alberta is estimated at about 72,000.

Notley said provincial reports show that three-quarters of work sites inspected in recent months had broken Alberta employment rules. About half the inspections were the result of complaints and the other half were random spot checks. Most of the problems were in the accommodation and food-service industries.

"Foreign workers come to Alberta with the hope of sending money home to their families," Notley said. "Employers are mistreating them. This government knows it."

Alberta Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk called the number of reported infractions a "good news story." He said it shows that foreign workers know their rights and know where to complain.

Lukaszuk also said the amount of money the workers are out doesn't amount to very much and the government ensures there is full restitution.

"We go out there and we investigate and, on average, we find that an average complaint results in about a $50 variation, whether in holiday pay or in overtime pay. But we take this very seriously," he said.

"Often the cases never repeat themselves. It is not a case of Alberta employers being unscrupulous and wanting to purposely rip off workers. In most cases this is not the case. When that is the case, and standards are violated, charges could be laid."

Notley said the government should be taking action on two fronts. In the short term, it should hire more inspectors and conduct more spot inspections to ensure that employers are following Alberta labour laws.

But the best solution would be to abolish the temporary foreign worker program and allow more immigrants to move to the province permanently.

"It is designed to almost encourage this kind of exploitation," she said. "If these folks are good enough to work here, they are good enough to live here."