Chamber still pushing for foreign workers 

A series of programs helps local employers hire people from elsewhere

Times may be tough but the president of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce wants to make sure businesses are prepared when the economy turns around.


Fiona Famulak said this week she believes foreign workers will make up an important park of Whistler's workforce in the future, despite the fact the provincial unemployment rate currently sits around 8 per cent.


That is why the chamber is working with the Canadian government and British Columbia's chamber of commerce on a series of programs to help local businesses hire foreign workers.


"It does seem strange to be focusing on hiring foreign workers right now, but this is only a temporary condition we are in," said Famulak, referring to the current economic state.


"The bigger picture is even though British Columbia might emerge from these times more quickly than other provinces, we need to be aware that our aging population and declining birth rates is an ongoing set of conditions for us.


"We are going to be facing a skill shortage, perhaps not now, but in the future, so we need to be ready to face those shortages."


At least three programs are currently in place to encourage employers to hire non-Canadians.


The newest is a B.C. chamber pilot project called the Foreign Workers Resource Network, also taking place in Fort St. John, Kamloops and Nelson. Specifically, a trained person will be on hand between May 2009 and October 2009 to answer questions from employers on how to hire, train and retain foreign workers.


Famulak said not too many employers jumped on board with the program in May, but 12 employers got involved in June and two more stepped up this month.


Another program is the chamber's monthly workshops with Immigration Canada that show employers how to hire foreign workers through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and B.C.'s Provincial Nominee Program.


The workshops were started about a year ago and about 10 to 15 employers have come out to each session, said Famulak. "That, to me, indicates that there is an ongoing interest in hiring foreign workers," she said.


Lastly, the chamber is helping bring government officials who specialize in temporary foreign workers into the resort municipality for two days each month. The officers, through Service Canada, help non-Canadians navigate government services like receiving social insurance numbers and applying for employment insurance.


The chamber's push for foreign workers is not new, however.


In 2006 the chamber, then led by former president Louise Lundy, conducted a petition to expand the Australian working holiday program and presented results to the House of Commons in Ottawa. One year later, the government announced a three-year pilot program allowing Australians to work in Canada for two years, instead of the previous limit of 12-months.


Since then, the chamber has continued to push for visa expansions for other countries. And this week Famulak said the "top four" countries she is currently focusing on for work-rule changes are New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Korea and Japan.


Businesses in Whistler, too, have been keen to hire non-Canadians in the past.


The number of Whistler employers who received a labour market opinion (LMOs) from the Canadian government almost doubled last year, from 604 in 2007 to 1,200 in 2008. The government requires employers to get LMOs for many types of work visas to make sure they are not taking a job away from a Canadian.


But this year's economic meltdown may be taking its toll on foreign employment.


The government has only issued 109 LMOs from January to March for Whistler-area businesses this year, down from the 136 issued for the same time period last year.

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