Federal government announces: TFW program suspended for restaurants

April 28, 2014 7:58 am
Kevin Weedmark

The temporary foreign worker program that has been credited by local food service businesses for allowing them to expand has been closed down for restaurants.

The suspension was announced Thursday evening. No food service business will be approved for new temporary foreign workers, and those approved but not yet hired will be affected as well.

Souris-Moose Mountain MP Ed Komarnicki said he will speak with minister Jason Kenney to explain how important the program is to businesses in southeast Saskatchewan.

“I’ll make it known to the minister quite strongly that if you’re looking at remedying some abuses you shouldn’t scrap the entire program—it’s vital to some businesses and some communities in our constituency.

“Canadians are uneasy about the fact that businesses find the temporary foreign workers such an asset with good work ethic and may prefer them to Canadian candidates.

“The bottom line is if there are Canadians who are available to work and want to work they should be the first priority.

“If you go to fast food outlets throughout the constituency, it’s mostly temporary foreign workers, and a lot of our industry depends on temporary foreign workers to survive.

“Temporary foreign workers have a legitimate place, but the goal is to allow temporary foreign workers to fill jobs that couldn’t be filled otherwise, but not to displace any Canadian workers, so you have to be careful.”

Komarnicki said he has heard a lot from chambers of commerce and businesses in the riding about the importance of the program.

“The chambers and businesses are very vocal and I understand their concerns,” he said.

“You look at what jobs are available, there are 500 jobs unfilled. How do you fill those? The complaints from business owners is we’re making it too difficult and too costly for them.

“If you take a place like Moosomin, for example, there just aren’t enough young people and local people that might want a job, from what we have been told.”

He said he hopes the review leads to changes, but allows the program to continue.

“The review of the program is not a bad thing in my view, but we have to look at ways to ensure the program is there for communities that need it. You have to look at what the unemployment rate is in the area and you should have tighter or looser rules depending on where you are in Canada.

“From my perspective I want to make sure the review doesn’t shut down the program. I want to take a responsible approach to this. The opposition say they either want the program stopped or scrapped, but opposition MPs will intervene to ask the minister to get temporary foreign workers for businesses in their ridings, which tells you there is a need.”

“Hopefully businesses will have a chance to make representation, and hopefully the program will be allowed to continue.”

“We need to make sure the rules in place are followed. I don’t think Canadians will accept that a Canadian who wants to work will be displaced by a temporary foreign worker. First preference has to be for Canadians. The business owners I know are responsible and if they know the rules and the rules are clear they will abide by them. Our job as legislators is to ensure the rules are fair, and those who choose to intentionally circumvent the rules should be punished.

“But there’s no need to get rid of the whole program. It’s a valuable program and important program and it needs to continue, but it needs to do what it is intended to do and cannot be abused.”

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business was critical of the move.

“For a government that has been very supportive of Canada’s small business community, this decision is a slap in the face to entrepreneurs in the food services sector,” said CFIB president Dan Kelly.

“A public conviction of an entire industry is deeply unfair to the thousands of restaurant operators who use the program appropriately and follow all of the rules.”

He said CFIB members are strongly supportive of any action to crack down on those who abuse the program. In a recent survey, 85 per cent of small business owners said that access to the temporary foreign worker program should be revoked for those who misuse it.

“But the fact is, for some businesses—particularly those in smaller communities, resort towns or resource rich areas—ending their ability to use the temporary foreign worker program has real potential to put them out of business altogether,” added Kelly. “CFIB will be lobbying hard to convince the government to end the moratorium and work on solutions to address any ongoing problems.”

CFIB has recommended that government pursue a specialized temporary foreign worker stream for the restaurant and hospitality industry, built in similar fashion to the seasonal agricultural worker program. CFIB further advocates changes to the permanent immigration system to make it accessible to employers in need of lower-skilled workers.

The restaurant industry’s association, Restaurants Canada issued a statement expressing disappointment Friday.

“Restaurants Canada is disappointed with Minister Kenney’s decision to suspend the Temporary Foreign Worker Program for the food services sector, and is committed to working with the federal government to correct any abuses, restore the integrity of the program and expedite our sector’s access to it in regions of severe labour shortages,” according to the statement.

“The restaurant industry employs 1.1 million Canadians and is the number one source of first-time jobs for young people. About two per cent of the industry’s employees are temporary foreign workers. In areas of the country with severe labour shortages, the temporary foreign worker program is vital, allowing restaurants to remain in business, and to continue to provide jobs for their Canadian employees.

“The majority of restaurant operators using the program operate in complete compliance and it is unfortunate that their businesses and employees will be hurt by this broad-stroke approach. Albertans in particular will remember what it was like a few years ago to find restaurants closed because of a shortage of workers.

“Restaurants Canada provides its members with ongoing updates and checklists to facilitate their compliance with temporary foreign worker program requirements, and will continue to work with Minister Kenney and its members to ensure the future viability of the program.”

Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney took aim at the temporary foreign worker program Thursday.

Kenney issued the surprise moratorium hours after the C.D. Howe Institute released a study into the program that concluded it had spurred joblessness in B.C. and Alberta.

The announcement came despite Kenney’s insistence in recent weeks that only a small number of companies were abusing the program and his promise to deal with those who abuse the program harshly, including with fraud charges if necessary.

“I am announcing an immediate moratorium on the food services sector’s access to the temporary foreign worker program,’’ Kenney said in a statement.

He added his ministry will not process any new or pending applications for temporary foreign workers from restaurant operators, and any unfilled positions tied to previous approval will be suspended.

“This moratorium will remain in effect until the completion of the ongoing review of the temporary foreign worker program,’’ he said.

Hundreds of Canadian companies and government departments employ temporary foreign workers, according to data compiled by Kenney’s department. But there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of hotels and restaurants accessing the program in recent years.

Fast-food giant McDonald’s announced it is freezing its participation in the program pending a third-party audit after problems with the hiring of temporary foreign workers in B.C.

The program has grown from about 100,000 foreign workers in 2002 to as many as 338,000 now working across the country, according to the C.D. Howe report.

The institute, a non-partisan public policy think-tank, said changes to the program enacted between 2002 and 2013 made it much easier for employers to hire temporary foreign workers. Alberta and B.C. were particular benefactors.

But amid that hiring bonanza, the study concluded, a cumulative 3.9 percentage points was added to the unemployment rates in the two provinces.

“These policy changes occurred even though there was little empirical evidence of shortages in many occupations,’’ wrote the report’s author, economist Dominique Gross.

“When controlling for differences across provinces, I find that changes to the TFWP that eased hiring conditions accelerated the rise in unemployment rates in Alberta and British Columbia.’’

The Conservative government has since tightened the regulations, but there have been allegations in recent months about a handful of employers—particularly restaurants—abusing the program.

The C.D. Howe study, however, said that although the government’s 2013 changes to the program were positive, there is still an absence of solid data about the state of Canada’s labour market.

That echoes concerns raised by Don Drummond, an economist approached by the Tories five years ago to examine Canada’s labour market. He gave the government 69 recommendations to improve the quality of the information on the labour market, but says few have been implemented.

Gross recommended several reforms to the program, including compiling better data on whether labour shortages actually exist in Canada.

She also called for increasing the cost of a temporary foreign worker permit for companies, and said employers should face tougher rules forcing them to prove they’ve truly been unable to fill jobs with Canadian workers.

Until then, Gross wrote, a temporary quota should be placed on the number of foreign workers permitted to come to Canada.

In response to the C.D. Howe report, a Kenney spokeswoman cited a Statistics Canada finding that the impact of temporary foreign workers on employment estimates is negligible, representing just two per cent of overall employment.