Gateway to Canada

May 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Newton Grey thought he’d found the perfect local hire.

This past May, a woman walked into Inuvik’s Capital Suites to apply for a housekeeping job. Grey took her resume and, over the next four months, they played phone tag: she checked in regularly, but whenever he called back, the number had changed or someone else would answer the phone and the message would get lost in limbo. “Finally,” says Grey, “the stars aligned and I got the woman in my office and I hired her.”

After the interview, while seated at his desk, Grey glanced at his security-camera monitor. His new recruit was dancing through the lobby.

Grey’s receptionist came into his office. “What did you tell that woman?” she asked.

“All I did was offer her a job.”

“Man, is she happy.”

The woman was never seen or heard from again.

So begins the laundry list of Northern staffing issues: in the communities, a lack of work-readiness training, high unemployment, and disincentives (like wages that pay less than social assistance); in the cities, low unemployment, a serious and growing skills shortage, and not enough training programs to fill the gap; and all across the North, increasing competition with growing markets in southern Canada.

“I wish I could talk to her again,” says Grey of that comically (but still emblematically) ephemeral worker. But in the absence of a long-term fix – when no one in the south wants to relocate to Inuvik to work in the not-government-wage service industry – the only solution is an increasingly dirty word: foreign labour.

Last year, 605 temporary foreign workers came North to work in skilled and unskilled professions, a number that’s nearly doubled since 2009, the first year Canada as a whole welcomed more temporary workers than permanent residents. Alberta’s 84,465 foreign workers seems huge by comparison, but when you take into account population size, its influx is only 2.5 times the size of ours.

In the Yukon, where temporary foreign worker use has increased fastest, and where the influx of foreign labour is expected to double by 2016, the government’s Advanced Education branch recently introduced its own, territorially-administered temporary foreign worker program. The new program aims to make it faster and less bureaucratic for Yukon businesses to obtain foreign labour. But in an unhappy circumstance, the new program dropped into the middle of a seething national debate, triggered by Royal Bank of Canada’s decision in April to replace 45 employees in Toronto with temporary foreign workers from India. In May, the CBC reported that employers in the North and south were hiring temporary foreign workers in the same jobs and locations as Canadians collecting unemployment insurance.

“There’s people out there looking for work,” Northern Federation of Labour president Mary Lou Cherwaty said in June. “If [businesses] paid what it costs to live in the territories, they’d be able to find workers.” In a Globe and Mail article criticizing the timing of the Yukon’s temporary foreign worker program, writer Genesee Keevil noted the program’s rollout nearly coincided with the layoffs of more than 100 workers at Alexco Resource’s Bellekeno mine. Some say the program is a cop-out move by a territorial government that can’t or won’t invest enough in education or training. Others say we’re steadily losing businesses and skills capacity due to unnecessary administrative costs and delays associated with the program.

Both are true.

***

“If we could get all the unemployed people, the whole proportion of people willing to enter the labour force with training, and we trained them – and that’s not realistic at all – the mining industry [in the NWT] alone would still have a shortfall of 2,100 people.”

It’s early September and Hilary Jones is speaking for the NWT Mine Training Society at what is ostensibly a recruitment and retention forum organized by the Francophone economic development council, CDETNO. But as it turns out, many employers have come to learn more about one thing: the foreign worker program. “For advanced-stage projects that we hope come to fruition, if we want to make up our labour shortfall,” Jones goes on, “we’re going to have do it by either a) stealing from other Canadian mines, which is not a good thing, or b) immigration.”

Throughout the day, close to 50 employers, immigration officers, GNWT employees and CDETNO organizers break off into groups to brainstorm new ways of attracting and retaining local and southern Canadian workforces. Should we offer housing? Relocation assistance? Emphasize the perks of settling in the North? Tips are shared, online forums are held. But the liveliest sessions are the how-tos on foreign worker programs. There’s an underlying exasperation that no matter how we promote and advertise opportunities in the North, southern Canadians simply don’t want to move here.

“For over two years, we advertised in Canada trying to get people with skills,” says Manuel Jorge, owner of Energy Wall Systems, a retrofitter and cabinet-maker in Yellowknife. A recurring point made at the CDETNO forum was that the “Northern” in Northern skills shortage could refer to all of Canada, not just the Arctic. “There’s more than enough work down there,” says Jorge, “and the wages are competitive … And the cost of living up here is very expensive and that puts us at a disadvantage.” Jorge recently brought two cabinet makers to Canada from Spain through the foreign worker program’s “skilled and technical” category (see sidebar), but before that, he says he lobbied the government unsuccessfully for years to institute long-term, specialized occupational training programs in the trades that employers need. “I think we have an excellent territorial government, excellent ministers, an excellent premier that’s very open-minded about the Northern economy and the needs of the people. But the federal government needs to invest more and in the right places … The government didn’t really listen to the companies, didn’t analyze the crisis to learn about what we’re lacking.”

Jones says her society plans to release an analysis of skills most needed for mining in March, but Jorge says it’s too late for other industries. “Meanwhile, the companies suffer for it.” While his course proposals went unanswered, Jorge is doing his part to increase skills capacity in the North by bringing in his Spanish cabinet-makers. “The foreign worker program is beneficial to the NWT because we need skilled people. We need teachers.”

Wayne Guy of Yellowknife’s Guy Architects agrees. “If you want to attract talent and capacity, you need to get the best talent globally,” he says. But unlike Jorge, he says he found the temporary foreign worker process so time-consuming that he refuses to use it anymore, preferring to hire U.S. workers through the NAFTA reciprocity agreement. “To get a labour market opinion [a federal government licence to hire a foreign worker] you have to put out ads in local markets for months. But if you’re in a profession, you’re not going to get anybody up north floating around without a job. So when it comes to skilled and professional markets, that metric is really not applicable.”

Because of that, he says “The [foreign worker program] is just useless. You cannot get a person within any definite timeframe.” He gives the example of a recent landscape architect he hired on a student visa from Germany. After the visa elapsed, Guy tried to hire her as a temporary foreign worker. But one of the requirements of getting a labour market opinion is demonstrating that there’s no one locally available to take the job. There was a landscape architect in town, but she hadn’t worked for 20 years. In the meantime, the German architect took another job offer and Guy says the position remains unfilled. “That was the last opportunity for her,” he says, “and we lost capacity in the territory.”

But the program is not only essential for the skilled trades. Last year about a quarter of the NWT’s labour market opinions were issued for unskilled labour openings – jobs at Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire and McDonald’s, mostly.

According to Doug Terry, owner of two Tim Hortons in Whitehorse, “without foreign worker programs, I wouldn’t still be in business.” About 50 of his 70 staff members came in through such programs, and about half of those are now permanent residents.

“One of the myths that bothers me the most about foreign worker programs,” he says, “is the idea that employers are bringing in foreign workers to minimize their labour costs. Well, it ends up costing us a lot more to hire foreign labour.” All told, with flights and medical costs for workers and their dependents, as well as advertising, foreign employment agency fees and government processing fees, a typical Tim Horton’s counter attendant can cost more than $5,000. “And then there’s the fact that when you bring just one temporary foreign worker into the company, labour costs go way up”: the federal temporary foreign worker program prescribes pay rates according to labour class. “For front counter attendants, the prescribed rate right now is $11.75, whereas [Yukon] minimum wage is $10.74 … I can’t bring in a foreign worker and pay them a dollar more than minimum wage and then expect a local worker to work for a dollar less,” he adds. “So the prescribed rate actually bumps up the average wage of everyone.”

Terry hasn’t used the Yukon’s new temporary foreign worker program yet, but he’s looking forward to what he expects will be reductions in unnecessary advertising and paperwork costs. Under the new program, employers don’t have to post positions locally for quite as long – four-to-six weeks instead of the 12 to 18 weeks that’s typical of the federal program. Just as notably, the Yukon government has eliminated the requirement for a labour market opinion. Though he ends up nominating many of his temporary foreign workers for permanent residence after their two-year contract is up, Terry prefers to go through the temporary foreign worker program first. “From the foreign worker’s perspective, the nominee program is the holy grail,” he says. “And it sometimes happens that people get their nomination very quickly – in six or seven months – and then they take off, leave the territory and head for Ontario.” And that reflects badly on retention rates. “I feel much more comfortable nominating someone to the Yukon nominee program if they’re a solid employee with a strong work ethic and I think they’re going to contribute to the Yukon economy.”

The Yukon temporary foreign worker program is not meant to serve a screening function for employers, says Shawn Kitchen, assistant deputy minister of Yukon Advanced Education. He helped develop the territorial program, starting in 2007. It simply streamlines the hiring process. “The labour market opinion – the basic reason for having that there – is to identify that there is in fact a need for employment in that particular occupation.” But through consultations with the federal government and Yukon businesses, Kitchen says “we know that in the longer term there’s going to be a need for labour in two major sectors: mining and tourism.” That’s why the Yukon temporary foreign worker program is intended to fill short-term vacancies in only those sectors. Kitchen’s quick to point out that the new foreign worker program works hand-in-hand with training, recruitment and retention and labour market research programs to address future skills shortages.

It should be noted, the first temporary foreign worker to be approved through the program doesn’t strictly conform to Advanced Education’s criteria. Rick Karp, president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce and co-owner of salon Hair Sensations, says employers simply have to indicate “in some way, shape or form, that they benefit and service the two sectors” – mining and tourism. So while Hair Sensations is clearly not a mining or tourism business, “the beauty industry gets a lot of activity when tourism is active,” says Karp. “And we usually have a big influx of miners coming into his shop when they’re on their way back home from their rotations.” Karp says the Yukon foreign worker program came at just the right time for the shop and Shinji Kishi, a Japanese hairstylist he’d taken on through the student visa program. “Shinji had a lot of international experience,” he says, “and I tried to hire him through the provincial nominee program, but the federal government recently tightened language requirements for permanent residency and he no longer qualified.” While the Yukon finalized its temporary foreign worker program, Kishi went back to Japan. On August 1, when the program finally came into effect, Karp says he was the first in line with Kishi’s paperwork. Kishi now has six months in Canada to brush up on his written English before Karp sponsors him again through the nominee program. Kishi wants to bring his wife and one-and-a-half-year-old daughter to settle in the North.

***

“The program is impossibly flawed,” says Vikki Quocksister, president of the Yukon Federation of Labour. “The temporary foreign worker program was initially meant to only fill the high-skilled jobs until Canadians have the training to actually fill the jobs. They were never meant to be in the low-wage jobs.” She commends the territorial government for partnering with the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board to monitor the working and living conditions of new workers in Canada, but says hiring foreign workers for low-skill, low-wage jobs lowers minimum wage across the territory to levels that nobody can survive on and exposes them to potential exploitation. “I’m ecstatic to see that the Workers Compensation Board is being proactive in the initial checking of the [work] sites,” she says, “but there’s nothing in place to actually do spot checks.” Last year, when employment standards inspectors conducted spot checks of 133 Alberta workplaces, they found that employers who hired temporary foreign workers were nearly 50 per cent more likely to contravene the standards code. For starters, Quocksister would like to see stronger compliance and enforcement measures to ensure health and safety standards are being met, as well as spot checks.

“The majority of employers here are very good,” says Leona Martin, an immigration officer who, at one time, simultaneously worked as an RCMP officer in Yellowknife (or as she puts it, “I was helping people come into the country and helping them leave”). According to a 2008 Conference Board of Canada study, Yellowknife had the highest immigration retention rate per capita. Martin’s not surprised. She cites a case where Canadian Tire rapidly hired six temporary foreign workers who suddenly lost their jobs elsewhere. She worked with the business to issue emergency work permits to ensure they didn’t have to leave the territory. “The businesses here all know each other and they’re willing to help each other … Of course, there’s great potential for abuse, exploitation and human trafficking. We’re not exempt by any means.”

But the best cure for that is more foreign workers, says Martin. “There are about 500 foreign workers in Yellowknife right now, but 12 to 14 years ago, the only temporary foreign workers that were here were nannies. It really opened up [a decade ago].” And as more foreigners come, exploitation decreases. “Through education, I’ve noticed a change in attitude in employers. Some of the employers now hiring foreign workers are the same that said they never would. They just needed to understand more about the program.”

Others say employers also need to understand how to work the bureaucracy in order to survive. Otherwise you might end up like Newton Grey in Inuvik. “In order to qualify for the program, I need to truthfully, honestly advertise a job for three months or more,” he says. “There are ways to manipulate the system to rule out local labour. You can make impossible criteria … But if I’m truly, actively looking for someone to fill the job, it’s going to be filled. So I don’t qualify.” He repeats the cycle on a weekly basis. “I fill the position with someone who owes money on a Ski-doo and they work until they have enough money to pay it off.
“And then they’re gone.”

As Grey breaks off the interview, he says, “It’s funny, when you called, I had three resumes that I was looking at for housekeeping. Of course, none of them applied for housekeeping. They all want management jobs. Which one do you take a chance on? Between now and Monday, I’m going to employ one of those people. Unfortunately, in another two weeks, I’ll be looking for somebody else.”

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