By Dan Kelly
In my 20 years as a lobbyist for small businesses, I’ve witnessed good and bad public policy, done thousands of interviews and received my share of “beefs and bouquets” (as we used to say in Winnipeg). But I must say I’m a little taken aback by the political firestorm regarding the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program in the past few weeks.
Few issues can fan populist fires more quickly than immigration policy, especially if a policy seems to promote the arrival in Canada of low-paid workers who are taking jobs from Canadians. So it is no surprise that we are witnessing the bonfire of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, a 10-year-old federal scheme designed to allow companies to bring in workers to work in sectors and industries facing chronic labour shortages.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has supported the program for years, and having lived and worked in Alberta, I know how important it’s been for many small companies. Similarly, I think, most thinking Canadians have come to accept that there are shortages of particular skills in some parts of the country.
But for many Canadians, the idea that a restaurant or hotel would need TFWs seems strange. Twenty years ago, I might have, too. My first job, at age 15, was washing dishes in a Winnipeg pizza place. It’s hard to believe there aren’t enough Canadians willing and able to do these jobs.
Some very smart economists will claim there is no labour shortage. And at first blush the facts support them. While there are nearly 300,000 vacant positions in small businesses across Canada, it’s true there are many more people looking for work.
But Canada’s labour market has undergone big changes. Employers in the resource sectors are hungry for workers. In addition to drawing many skilled workers, they pay excellent wages even for lesser-skilled positions, leaving a shortage for the grocery stores, hotels and restaurants.
This phenomenon is exacerbated by a declining birth rate that has shrunk the pool of young people who traditionally fill entry-level jobs. In rural and remote communities — particularly those with a strong resource base — the problem is particularly acute. If you doubt it, try to find someone to serve coffee in Estevan, Sask.
But even in larger cities restaurants, hotels and other service businesses struggle to find employees. Often robust competition with larger companies, means entry wage levels can be low, hours long and available shifts at less than desirable times. However, they also have much to offer – training, flexibility, opportunities for advancement.
A Vancouver business owner who has several quick service restaurant franchises recently told me that for every five interviews the business schedules, only one person shows up. He’s hired unemployed teachers, but when they get a substitute teaching assignment, they call to say they won’t be coming in.
Another restaurant owner in Toronto has no problem finding waiters or bartenders, but can’t find the nine specialized Indian cooks he needs. The jobs pay $40,000 a year, but the locals he’s hired never last. He currently has five cooks, four of which are TFWs with expiring visas. He said he has enough customer demand to open another two restaurants, but the shortage of cooks makes it impossible.
The TFW program has faced controversy of late, and to be clear if there is proven misuse of the program or abuse of vulnerable foreign workers, consequences should be severe. But we shouldn’t convict an employer in the public square without a full and fair investigation. Nor should we punish the thousands who are using the program as intended with a moratorium or limited access. As one CFIB member said, nobody is calling to scrap the EI program even though there are well-documented cases of abuse.
I found myself knee-deep in controversy after doing a CBC interview on the work ethic of Canadians versus TFWs. The story was so big, it bumped the Quebec election from the lead spot on the CBC homepage that day. I could have backed off, or said I was misquoted. But the truth is I’m hearing from small business owners that they need more people who will show up, on time, work a full week without disappearing and give their customers a basic level of courtesy.
If those people are Canadian, as many are, great. If some are TFWs, small business owners embrace these new workers, and far from abusing them, help them in a variety of ways.
In the past few weeks, defending the TFW program has been a lonely job, and has even elicited my first death threat. But for 43 years, CFIB has been there to give small business owners a voice they would not otherwise have. In any human resources related story, it is nearly impossible for an employer to publicly respond without violating privacy rules or facing legal consequences. CFIB is proud to defend the vast majority of employers who are following the rules, yet are being punished.
If the current moratorium is allowed to stand or expand to other sectors, it will have a deep impact, particularly in smaller, resource-based communities. There are solutions to the problems with the TFW program, including strict enforcement of the rules and better pathways to permanent residency. We can only hope cooler heads prevail.
Dan Kelly is the President and CEO, Canadian Federation of Independent Business