Federal government to review Temporary Foreign Worker Program 

Announcement follows months of advocacy work from Whistler businesses

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - Under review Joel Chevalier, VP of employee experience for Whistler Blackcomb, says the company has reduced its usage of TFWs from 10 per cent in 2010 to 1.4 per cent this year. The federal government will review the program this year.
  • Photo submitted
  • Under review Joel Chevalier, VP of employee experience for Whistler Blackcomb, says the company has reduced its usage of TFWs from 10 per cent in 2010 to 1.4 per cent this year. The federal government will review the program this year.

Whistler's message has been heard in Ottawa: Changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program instituted by the Conservative government last summer are not working.

The federal government will appoint a House of Commons committee tasked with reviewing the program and recommending options for reform.

But Whistler isn't the only voice speaking out about the changes.

"The minister (for Employment, Workforce Development and Labour) MaryAnn Mihychuk has heard from many MPs... and she's getting that from all angles," said Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country.

"I've had a couple of conversations with the minister about this because it's so important. Particularly in Whistler, (but) it's also important to businesses on the Sunshine Coast who are challenged to find staff."

No matter what comes of the review, Goldsmith-Jones said the goal would still be to hire Canadians first, particularly in light of recent layoffs across the country.

"People are looking for work, and so of course it's our hope that companies do all that they can, and we do all we can to advertise where there are jobs," she said.

"We also are really interested in an effort in hiring Indigenous people, but when those avenues are exhausted we know we're going to need to figure out a way to get the workers that businesses need."

Grant Cousar, CEO of Whistler Cooks and chair of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce's board of directors, said it was rewarding to see the Chamber's advocacy work pay off.

"I think we've been working on this... for quite some time with not a lot of traction," he said.

"It was thrilling to see that the federal government is willing to open this up."

The Chamber has been stating its case since the changes were announced in June of 2014, rarely missing an opportunity to highlight the benefits of a strong Whistler economy (like $519 million in annual tax revenue for three levels of government and $1.53 billion in annual provincial GDP generated by consumer spending in Whistler).

A labour market survey conducted by the Chamber last summer found that 81 per cent of respondents reported employing Working Holiday Visa holders while 26 per cent reported employing Temporary Foreign Workers.

Of the businesses surveyed, 78 per cent said they had instituted a wage increase in the last six months to attract or retain staff.

In terms of money lost due to staff shortages, 41 per cent said they missed out on more than $5,000 while 22 per cent missed out on more than $10,000.

The most sought-after employees, according to Chamber members, were line cooks, housekeepers, servers, bartenders, hosts and front desk agents.

About 14 per cent of businesses reported needing management positions as well.

But the goal will still be to hire Canadians first, Cousar said.

"I think that absolutely has to be the mandate," he said. "(But) I think that the question is when those people aren't available, are we holding back the economy by not looking at different opportunities?"

Since 2010, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) has reduced its dependency on TFWs from 10 per cent of total staff to 1.4 per cent this year — from 350 employees to 56, said Joel Chevalier, WB's VP of employee experience.

"We only use this program for ski and snowboard instructors," Chevalier said, noting that about 75 per cent of WB's staff are Canadian or permanent residents.

"We definitely want to keep that up. I think we've been true to the concept that the program is last resort."

However, as WB's business operations grow, so too does the need for staff — Chevalier noted the company is employing about 175 more people this year than it was last year, "and we're still not able to keep up with demand in terms of culinary and in terms of teaching lessons."

In fact, WB is getting close to needing that "last-resort" option on the culinary side of things.

Chevalier said he knows the program is contentious, and was glad to see the changes meant to eliminate abuse, "but if eliminating misuse means taking away a last-resort option for employers that are legitimately using the program, then I think it's a good thing that they're going to re-evaluate the program.

"If they can balance restrictions with need, then I think that they'll get it."

Specific policy asks from the Chamber and WB include: Using accurate labour market data that reflects Whistler's two-per-cent unemployment rate; recognition of culinary trades as high-skilled positions; the creation of a stream for seasonal workers similar to the agricultural program that would be accessible to all tourism sectors with seasonal labour shortages; maintaining or increasing the Working Holiday Visa program; enhancing the Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) process by extending LMIAs from one year to three or prorating them based on the number of months that they're valid; increasing the quota for the provincial nominee program pipeline; and increasing overall immigration levels to one per cent of the Canadian population (or 350,000 annually).

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