Chamber, immigration group slam changes to temporary foreign worker program 

Say changes will increase costs, red tape for employers and employees

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The Government of Canada has made changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) that critics say will make it harder and more expensive for employers in the future. The Whistler Chamber of Commerce, as well as provincial and national chamber associations, have come out in opposition, as well as groups representing labour and immigrant workers.

Diane Finley, federal minister of human resources and skills development, said the goal of the changes was to protect Canadian jobs.

"Canada is experiencing significant skills shortages in many sectors and regions, and Canadians must always have first crack at job opportunities when they become available," said Finley in a release. "The purpose of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is to help fill genuine and acute labour needs and we have been reviewing the program to ensure that goal is met and Canadian workers are never displaced."

Fiona Famulak, president of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, is concerned that the changes could be damaging to the tourism industry.

"The tourism industry is a big user of the TFWP and the changes just announced will make it more costly and time consuming for our businesses to fill open positions," she said in a press release. "In our resort, we're currently in an environment where supply exceeds demand for labour. However, we know it's a temporary condition. When the cycle reverses our businesses need to be able to access international labour pools, via programs like the TFWP, to meet their demand for skilled and unskilled labour.

"This is not about hiring international workers instead of Canadians. Canada and B.C. face steep demographic and workforce challenges in the coming years and we need both Canadian and foreign workers to meet those challenges."

The announcements do not affect the worker visa program used by Whistler Blackcomb and other employers to hire internationally for seasonal operations at the resort, but the resort does use the TFWP.

Joel Chevalier, manager of Employee Experience at Whistler Blackcomb, said most of the changes to the program are minimal from their perspective.

Among the changes that went to effect on April 29:

• Employers now have to pay temporary foreign workers the same wage as Canadians. Previously, employers could pay employees up to 15 per cent less for high-skill occupations and five per cent less for low-skilled occupation if they could prove that wages were similar to the market.

• The Accelerated Labour Market Opinion (LMO) program has been temporarily suspended for evaluation.

• Pending Parliamentary approval, new fees would be introduced for processing LMOs.

• Employers will have to answer additional questions in their applications to prevent the outsourcing of jobs and ensure Canadian workers are not being replaced by foreign workers.

• Businesses that use temporary foreign workers now have to have a plan in place to transition to an all-Canadian workforce.

Chevalier said Whistler Blackcomb is already complying with a number of the requirements.

They did test the Accelerated Labour Market Opinion program last season, but have never used it on any regular basis.

As well, they've been paying temporary foreign workers the same as Canadian employees for several years. They actually had to lobby to have the amount reduced because they were in a situation where they were paying those workers more than other staff.

As for filing a plan to transition to an all-Canadian workforce, Chevalier said it's already happening.

"Last year we only qualified 105 people on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program out of 3,500 staff so it's not a high number," he said, adding that most of the workers are skilled ski instructors. That's down from a high of 355 foreign workers a few years ago.

"Our position has been that it's a struggle to find the right level and right number of highly qualified ski instructors, so we were required to fill some of the last remaining spots with temporary foreign workers," he explained. "Our snow school has an enhanced training program and focus on skills development (to work towards) an all-Canadian workforce."

The fees for applications and LMOs are an issue. With roughly 300,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada and a cost of $38 million, Chevalier said that would work out to about $125 per application.

He believes the costs and requirements would likely have a greater impact on smaller businesses, although many of those business owners do end up sponsoring talented workers to extend their stay.

"I'll be interested to see how (small businesses) respond to the changes. My gut feeling is that smaller employers will pay the fee," he said. "It's a bigger challenge around hiring future Canadians... It's adding a level of training that could be difficult for small businesses."



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