Ottawa report calls for streamlining of TFW program 

Whistler business community's temporary foreign worker input evident in several recommendations

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO BY TOSHI KAWANO/WHISTLER BLACKCOMB - Snow School Whistler Blackcomb hires temporary foreign workers as specialized ski and snowboard instructors, but has decreased its reliance on the federal program in recent years after Ottawa made changes to encourage businesses to hire domestically.
  • File PHOTO by Toshi Kawano/Whistler Blackcomb
  • Snow School Whistler Blackcomb hires temporary foreign workers as specialized ski and snowboard instructors, but has decreased its reliance on the federal program in recent years after Ottawa made changes to encourage businesses to hire domestically.

A parliamentary report released last week could help put a dent in Whistler's labour shortage, pushing for the streamlining of Canada's controversial Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to give employers quicker access to foreign labour.

Released last Monday, Sept. 20, the report, drafted by a Liberal-heavy House of Commons Committee, called for a review of the TFW application process "with a view to increasing speed and efficiency" after employers have reported often onerous, months-long processing times.

The report was based on testimony from more than 60 witnesses from a wide range of sectors, including the former CEO of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, Val Litwin.

"That we're seeing some of our specific recommendations in the report is good news — but now we need our ministers of labour and immigration to adopt some of these sensible program concepts," wrote Litwin in an email. He began in his new role as head of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce earlier this month.

One of Litwin's key points surrounded the inaccuracies in the way an unemployment rate is determined for a particular region. Under the current guidelines, low-wage foreign workers are banned in areas where the unemployment rate is higher than six per cent.

"As Mr. Litwin explained, the 6 per cent unemployment rate estimated for the Vancouver mainland southwest catchment is in fact not representative of the labour market conditions in Whistler where unemployment currently sits at 1.8% and where, due to the seasonality of the hospitality industry, a labour market shortage has been reported since 2012," the report read. One of the recommendations urges Employment and Social Development Canada to take immediate steps to improve the collection of labour market data to more closely align with localized economies, such as Whistler's.

The report also recommends creating "a trusted employer" stream of the program that would expedite the application process for businesses that have used the program without issues in the past. Some critics worry that would eliminate the requirement for employers to prove there is a need for foreign workers.

"It's always a little bit risky when there are two lists and two different streams of processes going on, but I do think that ultimately that is a good recommendation and addresses challenges that have been created by employers that have been less than honest with their ability to use the program. I believe we would be on that list," noted Whistler Blackcomb's (WB) VP of employee experience Joel Chevalier.

After a number of high-profile abuses came to light back in 2014, Ottawa made several changes to the TFWP to discourage industry from driving down wages and entice employers to hire domestically. Since then, WB has had to rely less on its foreign worker stream to fill specialized ski and snowboard instructor positions. Chevalier said the company has applied to hire 56 TFWs to its snow school ahead of the 2016-17 ski season, representing 1.37 per cent of its workforce. That's down from 58 last season, and 90 in 2014-15. Chevalier said WB has also ramped up its efforts to hire domestically, increasing its Canadian recruiting budget fivefold in the past half decade. He also added that bumping up wages for ski and snowboard instructors hasn't proven effective in enticing Canadians to the job.

"We only use this program as a last resort for highly skilled ski and snowboard instructors, where we know that there's just not enough of those people in Canada," he added.

The report also calls for Immigration Canada to provide multiple entry work visas for TFWs employed in seasonal work to allow them greater mobility in off-seasons.

Another recommendation that should pertain to Whistler is the call to create clearer access for TFWs to gain permanent residency, although NDP labour critic Niki Ashton has called the commitment too vague.

Other opponents accused the Liberals of kowtowing to industry interests and failing to provide a concrete plan to improve conditions for foreign workers.

"More and more employers are applying to bring Temporary Foreign Workers into Canada to fill a variety of jobs, and increasingly are using the program for low-wage positions," read a recent release from the BC Federation of Labour. "This trend only serves to depress wages and invite exploitation of workers who are granted no rights on the TFW program."

Many working on the frontlines in Whistler have decried the business sector's reliance on foreign staff, claiming it allows employers to undercut wages and discourages unionization with a lack of long-term employees in place.

According to a 2015 chamber poll, 26 per cent of responding businesses employ temporary foreign workers in Whistler.

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