Alberta businesses eager to see Temporary Foreign Worker Program scrapped or reformed
On the eve of a federal review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program by a House of Commons committee that begins Wednesday, the committee chair has indicated the controversial program could be changed significantly or scrapped — a move that would be welcomed by many Alberta businesses.
“I believe, having spoken to so many different groups, there may not be a single program like a TFW program that’s going to fix everything,” said MP Bryan May, chair of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development, and Status of Persons with Disabilities.
“This may have to be something that’s going to be developed in conjunction with different pathways to citizenship that don’t currently exist.”
Eighty to 90 per cent of meetings May has had in his capacity as chair have been with industry representatives, from sectors as varied as video game production and farming, who have concerns about the TFWP, he said.
Their qualms include processing times to bring in temporary foreign workers with specialized skills that are so long they are pushing some jobs out of the country.
“With the lack of pathways to citizenship, the organizations, the businesses, have tried to cram through a square peg in a round hole,” added May, explaining that TFWs often fill permanent jobs in roles as diverse as construction and upholstery.
The same concerns are on the minds of many Alberta businesses, which hope the review will result in major changes to the TFWP or new immigration programs tailored to their needs.
“We’ve always viewed the program as a Band-Aid solution at best,” said Richard Truscott, vice-president for Alberta at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. “The real problem is the fact that our immigration system doesn’t do a very good job of meeting the needs of employers and filling jobs that persistently go unoccupied in the economy.”
Most low-skilled TFWs can work in Canada for a maximum of four years, after which they cannot return as a TFW for another four. Some manage to stay through provincial programs that grant them permanent residency.
But Truscott and other industry representatives say these opportunities are too limited and that workers too often hit their four-year cap before permanent residency applications can be processed.
They also contend that labour shortages in industries such as hospitality, meat packing and agriculture have worsened because of the four-year cap and other regulations enacted by the Harper government to cut down on abuse of the TFWP and limit how many TFWs businesses could hire. Starting in July, the number of TFWs most businesses hire cannot exceed 10 per cent of their workforce.
“It cuts into our bottom line,” said Humphrey Banack, vice-president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, noting that a lack of staff prevents the agricultural industry from creating value-added products that bring in more money.
Farmers, especially those in beekeeping and vegetable industries, have lost qualified foreign workers with as much as 15 years of experience, he said.
Mark Chambers, senior production manager at Acme-based Sunterra Farms, would like to see a new program for foreign workers in agriculture, especially those, such as the meat industry and grain farmers, who do not qualify for the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.
“With the Canadian dollar being weaker today, it makes Canada’s product a lot more attractive to overseas buyers,” added Chambers, who is also co-chair of the national Agriculture and Agri-Food Labour Taskforce. “And, if we can’t produce it, live animals end up going to the U.S. to be finished and sorted.”
The economic downturn has eased the problem for some. Restaurants that once struggled to fill jobs in Alberta are seeing a labour surplus. But Mark von Schellwitz, vice-president for Western Canada at Restaurants Canada, said that significant reforms to the TFWP are needed so that these businesses don’t find themselves in another bind when the economy recovers.
The reforms he’s calling for include creating a way for more lower-skilled workers to get permanent residency, as well as giving seasonal resort communities such as Banff permanent access to seasonal TFWs.
In spite of Alberta’s ailing economy, hotels and restaurants in Banff and Lake Louise still find themselves short-staffed in the face of a summer tourism boom, thanks in part to the low Canadian dollar.
A cost-effective, six-month seasonal program “is essential,” Darren Reeder, executive director of the Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association, said in an email. He explained that the costs of using a seasonal exemption of the TFWP, which was granted to seasonal industries earlier this year, is prohibitive for businesses in Banff.
For his part, Truscott is hopeful for a productive and wide-reaching review.
“All rules and conditions of the program need to be looked at. It’s ridiculously complicated and confusing,” he said.
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