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Foreign workers program raises issues on the slopes

WB aims to reduce reliance on program but sees benefits of foreign instructors
COMPENSATION CONCERNS Two senior ski instructions question Whistler Blackcomb's practices around use of foreign workers. WB says program run fairly, and as mandated by government. Photo By Randy Lincks courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb

Longtime, local ski instructor Terry "Toulouse" Spence resigned this week after more than two decades at Whistler Blackcomb over ongoing concerns about the wage disparity between Canadians and temporary foreign workers.

Specifically, he called out Whistler Blackcomb for paying temporary foreign workers $15.30 per hour for standby, a minimum wage the company is mandated by government to pay, as opposed to the $10.25 for other instructors on standby.

Though standby pay is a small amount of overall compensation, the issue became a tipping point for Spence, who has not only seen the cost of lessons increase over the years without corresponding wage increases for instructors, but also the increase in total compensation amounts for executives (made up of base salary and performance based incentives) far outstripping the pay increases for the workers on the ground.

"What my regret is, is that the company doesn't recognize that the local guys have built the ski school to what it is today and they're not being rewarded for it," said Spence, 72, who initially was reluctant to voice his concerns publicly and then had a change of heart.

"It's time for me to go. If I don't agree with the way they pay me and if I don't agree with the way the school is run, then I shouldn't be there."

Whistler Blackcomb had just over 100 temporary foreign workers on staff this year — high-level ski and snowboard instructors, brought in from Romania, Spain, Mexico, South America, Australia, the U.K., and Japan. That's down from 350 workers a decade ago.

"Over the years we've been reducing the number to a point where next year we're going to be at about 2.3 per cent of our total workforce," said Joel Chevalier, WB's director of employee experience, adding that would translate to about 90 employees. All temporary foreign workers need at least a Level 2 certification, and many are top talent when it comes to teaching on the slopes.

They are valuable assets for the company, he said. As WB looks to grow its customer base, it will likely always need some temporary foreign workers with language skills to address its diverse clientele — and there are not enough Canadian workers with these skills to fill the positions.

"They do an amazing job from a service (standpoint)," said Chevalier. "A lot of them speak multiple languages. And a lot of the folks from Romania have multiple disciplines as well, they can teach skiing and they can also teach snowboarding at a high level."

Under the government program, they are able to work in Canada for 48 months, or eight ski seasons. That program also requires that the workers have 20 hours per week on average, a point negotiated specifically by Whistler Blackcomb to allow the company to calculate the 20 hours per week on a season average.

When asked if the 20-hour average was impacting Canadian instructors, Chevalier said it doesn't. It has not resulted in preferential treatment, he said.

"We've had a few questions and we've just been taking a look at it recently. But when we sat down with our snow-school leadership, they showed me the ranking system and it doesn't," he said.

That list is based on the number of requests an instructor gets for private lessons plus a quarter of their total teaching hours. In other words, the more they work, the higher up the list they will rank. There are four temporary foreign workers among the top 10 in that list, 19 in the top 50.

Seventeen-year-veteran ski instructor Paul Venner also takes issue with the program against the backdrop of other factors.

Instructors have seen the rise in the price of their lessons, but have not seen any significant pay rises.

Venner said he got a 15-cent-per-hour raise this year, from $33.60 to $33.75.

"That's an insult."

He added: "There is a huge difference between what they charge and what they pay."

The cost of a full-day private lesson this season is $699, before tax. At $33.75, Venner would earn $202, before tax.

Meanwhile, executive compensation based on incentives, salary and performance pay in the last three years has risen by double digits in some cases — though significant it is not out of line by industry standards, say experts.

"In light of the article in the Pique (March 27, 2014) that disclosed some of the salaries of the executive, it would only be fair to see the salaries of ski instructors improved as much," said Spence.

Higher wages would make these problems go away, added Venner. More Canadians would be interested in jobs as ski instructors, reducing the need for foreign workers.

"The wage levels, as they are, discourage anybody, but somebody like myself who's highly certified and been in the game all my life, to want to make it a career job," said Venner.

"If wages were higher across the board, there might be more encouragement for Canadians to apply for these jobs."

Whistler Blackcomb counters that its instructors are the highest paid in Canada and amongst the top in North America.

It budgets every year to train instructors in the snow school, with a goal of moving them higher up in their certification levels.

"As the business grows (it) gets tougher and tougher (not to use temporary foreign workers), but we feel quite confident that we're doing more than most in terms of our reliance on the Temporary Foreign Workers program," said Chevalier.

"It's certainly an issue that we're aware of and have been speaking to the (snow) school about.

"The feedback that we've been getting is making it more and more apparent that we have to continue down that road (to reduce reliance on the program)."

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