Foreign worker program a Whistler issue, too 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MIKE CRANE / TOURISM WHISTLER - A chef prepares food for the Made in Mexico Cornucopia event at Mexican Corner.
  • Photo by Mike Crane / Tourism Whistler
  • A chef prepares food for the Made in Mexico Cornucopia event at Mexican Corner.

Whistler has always been a place full of visitors, with the majority of people living here coming from somewhere else as well.

We have seen a growing appreciation of that in the popular multicultural festival hosted here each June, and most businesses value not just the travelling visitors who choose to spend their vacations here, but also the residents who have come from afar.

When news of the scandals around the Temporary Foreign Workers program started to spread, most in Whistler read about them then turned the page. What does that have to do with us, thought many.

But as a recent survey by the Whistler Chamber of Commerce found, the resort needs to sit up and pay attention to the issue.

Of those who completed the survey 62 per cent hired TFWs in the last year, while 25 per cent hired over 15 temporary foreign workers last season alone.

And the latest changes coming in will undoubtedly have an impact for these employers. Already Pepe Barajas, of Infinity Enterprises, which operates The Mexican Corner, is considering putting his latest venture, La Cantina at Marketplace, on hold as he comes to grips with what the changes mean for his restaurant.

The changes are likely to impact the number of Mexican chefs and workers he can bring in.

Barajas is totally in favour of hiring Canadians, but he is looking for specific cooking skills and knowledge to create his authentic food.

Last year, the restaurant industry rose to the top slot of occupations given so-called labour market opinions (LMOs), basically approvals to hire temporary foreign workers. Six years ago, restaurants didn't even appear in the top 10.

There is no doubt that as a visitor it adds authenticity when the staff serving you, or cooking for you, represent the country of origin.

But is that enough reason to bring in a temporary worker and hire them over a Canadian — no it is not.

The new changes to the program include a limit to the number of TFWs large- and medium-sized companies can employ and there is a major hike to the fees employers must pay to bring the workers in. These fees are known as the Labour Market Impact Assessment — they were $275, but are now $1,000.

The speed of the about face from the federal conservative government on the issue took many by surprise — though really the complaints about this program have been going on since 2006.

And clearly the program had been allowed to morph into a system that was ripe for abuse with little consistent oversight to keep its growing participants on the right path.

Look at the situation on the other side of the country in PEI, which has an unemployment rate of 11 per cent. Applications for TFWs went from 220 in 2005, to 644 in 2009, to over 1,100 in 2012. According to 2012 numbers, 8,800 Prince Edward Islanders — about one in every 16 — were collecting employment insurance. In some cases TFWs were brought in for jobs that qualified locals were registered for at employment centres.

What was the issue there? There is no clear answer. But could it be the TFW, most of whom have no family responsibilities in Canada, would work longer hours no questions asked, work on holidays, not take holidays and work for lower wages?

What does this say about us as Canadians that this type of labour is becoming the go-to for all sorts of industries?

In many ways Whistler is unique. We cater to an international audience and our visitors enjoy speaking their own languages and seeing the multicultural diversity of our village.

But as we continue to use the Temporary Foreign Worker program businesses should stay true to Canadian values, hiring locals where appropriate and offering wages and conditions any of us would expect to get.

The TFW program is not going to disappear, but it is clear that more needs to be done to improve how it operates both for Canadians looking for work, and for foreign workers who want to come here for employment.

If Canada, indeed Whistler, needs these workers a good starting place for change might be allowing these now short-term foreign workers to apply for residency and give them flexible work permits instead of tying them to a single company.

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