Exodus of foreign workers not expected to hit Whistler 

Some say thousands of TFWs will leave Canada with visas expired as of April 1

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO - STAYING PUT  With work visas expiring on April 1, immigration experts have predicted a mass exodus of temporary foreign workers from Canada. Whistler's foreign worker pool, made up primarily of Whistler Blackcomb ski instructors, is expected to stay put.
  • shutterstock photo
  • STAYING PUT With work visas expiring on April 1, immigration experts have predicted a mass exodus of temporary foreign workers from Canada. Whistler's foreign worker pool, made up primarily of Whistler Blackcomb ski instructors, is expected to stay put.

While immigration lawyers and labour market experts are predicting the mass exodus of thousands of temporary foreign workers (TFW) from Canada over the coming weeks, it appears the majority of Whistler's foreign employees are staying put.

Temporary workers who have been working in the country since April 1, 2011, saw their four-year visas expire last week, unless they were given a one-year reprieve.

The deadline had immigration experts across Canada predicting thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of foreign workers departing the country, particularly from Alberta.

The evidence, however, is mostly anecdotal, since Citizenship and Immigration Canada has refused to share the number of temporary foreign workers who lost their work visas on April 1.

But in Whistler, where employers rely more heavily on TFWs to fill seasonal staff shortages, a mass departure is not expected.

"It won't impact Whistler because you have the international mobility programs that are keeping people here, and the four-year rule doesn't apply," explained Whistler Immigration director Paul Girodo.

Also at play for Whistler is the fact that the time limit only applies to those who have been employed for 48 months since 2011. Considering the seasonal nature of Whistler's labour needs, it could take years for temporary foreign workers to amass that much employment time.

"For us, the people we have here on (temporary foreign work permits), they're only with us five or six months a year, so it would actually take them eight years to hit that timeframe," said Joel Chevalier, Whistler Blackcomb's director of employee experience.

Whistler's largest employer, the ski resort hired around 90 TFWs as ski instructors this season, a steep drop-off from the roughly 350 employed nearly a decade ago. Chevalier said Whistler Blackcomb has decreased its reliance on the program at the behest of the federal government, which has pushed businesses across Canada to cut down on foreign workers in the wake of numerous abuses reported by the CBC.

"It's a program that's used as a last resort, and that's how we've been using it," Chevalier said. "We've demonstrated year over year that we've continued to reduce our reliance on the program despite the fact that it's creating greater pains on our ability to operate our business."

The challenge for Whistler Blackcomb is that it already employs the majority of Canada's qualified ski and snowboard instructors, making it difficult to find domestic employees to fill those positions.

"Finding others out there who are qualified means taking them from another resort, which isn't fantastic from a Canadian ski industry perspective," added Chevalier. "We've been trying to carry a balanced approach by trying to grow from within and enticing others to come from (across Canada)."

After CBC reported numerous abuses last year, Ottawa made a number of changes to the federal TFW program in June, including a ban on low-wage foreign workers in areas where the unemployment rate is higher than six per cent and ultimately a 10-per-cent cap in areas where unemployment is lower.

The changes have left business leaders in Whistler reeling, with the Whistler Chamber of Commerce continuing to lobby the federal government for relaxed regulations on TFWs. (Chamber of Commerce CEO Val Litwin could not be reached by press time.)

It's a sentiment shared by the province's restaurant industry, according to B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association president Ian Tostenson.

"It's too costly and too risky for most members to contemplate (hiring TFWs), so if it's the goal of the federal government to kill the program, they've done a good job of that," he said.

The recent changes to the TFW system have also led to increased demand for provincial nominee programs (PNP) across the country, according to B.C.'s Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training. B.C.'s nominee program, which is aimed at attracting skilled workers and investment-ready entrepreneurs, was suspended for 90 days, effective March 31, in part to deal with the influx of applicants, but also to give Victoria time to consult on a potential overhaul of the program.

"The PNP is an important program for B.C. and a key pathway to permanent residency for workers who want to come and live in B.C., raise a family and contribute to building our province," wrote jobs minister Shirley Bond in a release.

"The redesigned PNP will be focused on supporting B.C.'s labour market and economic development priorities for a strong economy."

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