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Feds float new changes to foreign worker program

With massive labour shortages predicted, how will Whistler fill the gap?
ON THE MOVE? Proposed changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program could allow foreign workers—such as ski instructors—to leave their employer for a new one in the same occupation without having to apply for a new work permit. Photo by Justa Jeskova/courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb

New proposed changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) have some in the ski and tourism industries on edge.

The proposed changes would allow for occupation-specific work permits under the TFWP, which would allow foreign workers to leave their employer for a new one in the same occupation without having to apply for a new work permit.

For business owners who invest months of their time and hundreds of dollars to secure just one worker under the program, the changes are concerning, said Whistler Chamber CEO Melissa Pace.

"We understand that some businesses in our country have abused the wages and working conditions for workers, and so we're supportive of some of the changes to protect those workers ... but we do need to protect those businesses, as well, that are not abusing the system," Pace said.

With consultation for the proposed changes closing later this month, the Whistler Chamber is prepping feedback for the federal government.

Pace said some of the Chamber's suggestions will be to create restrictions on when a worker can change employers, as well as a provision to support communities like Whistler, "that properly support and care for their workers ensuring all pre-negotiated terms set with the workers are met."

"In support of protecting workers? Absolutely. Completely in favour," she said.

"I don't think anybody would disagree with that, but when making those changes or looking at proposed changes, we need to ensure that we protect those that aren't abusing the system, and that are actually taking care of the workers when they arrive."

Pace couldn't say how many TFWP workers are in Whistler, noting that a 2017 survey put the question to all Chamber members, but it didn't correctly specify between TFWP workers and those here on other visas.

"Until we can go out with a better survey and more quantified and qualified responses, it's really tough to say how many of them are here working," she said.

For the ski industry, the TFWP is primarily used to hire experienced ski instructors, said Christopher Nicolson, president and CEO of the Canada West Ski Areas Association (CWSAA).

"If the person that's brought in could just immediately go to the place next door, that's not helpful," Nicolson said.

"That doesn't alleviate the problem that we're trying to remedy in the first place."

Nicolson said he didn't have a hard number for how many TFWP workers are used in the industry, noting that it varies from year to year, but said the number has decreased as fees and wait times associated with the program have gone up.

"The intention presumably was that you would be finding other people [in Canada], but that's not the case. What's happened is businesses have just stopped providing the same level of service, or same kinds of services," he said, noting that the problem is extra challenging for ski resorts in B.C.'s rural areas.

In its comments to government on the changes, the CWSAA asked for a specific allocation for ski instructors under the TFWP, Nicolson said.

"I think one thing that people get lost in is that people feel as though, from a tourism perspective, that the employers prefer this program. That is absolutely not the case," he said.

"This is a program of last resort to be able to try and offer services and operate the visitor economy within the country."

At Whistler Blackcomb, a "very small percentage" of the actual workforce comes through the TFWP, said communications director Marc Riddell.

"Generally the ones that come over on that specific visa are highly skilled with a specific skillset, so generally we're talking about higher-level instructors," he said, adding that those highly skilled instructors who do come to Whistler through the TFWP are not likely to go to another resort.

Pace also reiterated that the TFWP (not to be confused with foreign workers in Whistler on holiday visas or other, similar programs) is just "one cog in a wheel" when it comes to securing labour in the resort.

"When you look at labour as a whole, ... housing always comes up as No. 1, and we continue to work with the Resort Municipality of Whistler and with private development to see those move forward as quickly as possible," she said, adding that regional transportation—which recently met a funding setback at the provincial level (see Pique, July 4)—will also play a big role.

But with Canada's new federal tourism strategy setting out some ambitious goals—a 25-per-cent increase in tourism revenues to $128 billion by 2025, as well as 54,000 new jobs (not to mention a forecasted 908,000 job openings province-wide by 2028), the TFWP becomes all the more important to Whistler businesses, Pace said.

"I say OK, these are great numbers—what are we going to do here in Whistler as part of that growth? Is there growth opportunity? Are we maxed out? If we're going to grow, how do we do that?" she said.

"Because right now, you talk to the business owners, and they don't have enough staff to even maintain what they have."

Brooke Finlay, partner and managing director with Whistler Immigration, said it is important to note that an occupation-specific work permit would still restrict foreign workers to working for an employer with a valid Labour Marker Impact Assessment (LMIA).

She's also heard the argument that the changes would be disadvantageous to employers who have taken the time and spent the money to bring a worker over under the TFWP.

"I believe these types of negative impacts could be mitigated by carefully considering and identifying specific scenarios that justify changing employers, such as if the employer isn't paying the wages specified in the LMIA or the job isn't the same as what is listed on the offer of employment, for example," Finlay said in an email.

Some have said the changes don't go far enough to protect workers, Finlay added, noting that additional support and resources could be considered to help foreign workers avoid or leave abusive employers.

But with some massive labour and skills shortages projected for the next decade, foreign workers will continue to play a vital role in Canada's economy, Finlay said.

"The proposed changes present an opportunity for lawmakers and stakeholders to engage in important discussions that will shape the future of the TFWP, ensuring program integrity and relevance is maintained," she said. .