Why are all the good employers being punished because of a few who have crossed the line?
By Tom Steele
The Minister of Employment and Social Development Canada, Jason Kenney, imposed a moratorium on the issuance of Labour Market Opinions for thirty three occupations, on April 24, 2014. The issue that sparked this measure was alleged abuse of the Foreign Worker Program by a few McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s outlets. There have been complaints involving foreign counter attendants displacing Canadian workers. Apparently, Canadian applicants were bypassed in favour of hiring foreign workers. Some Canadians have complained that their hours were cut back in order to give full time employment to the foreign workers. The details of the alleged abuse of these counter attendants have been covered extensively in the media. Media reports have indicated that the occupations under moratorium were related to the food service Industry. The reality is that the affected occupations also cover the hotel industry, retail/wholesale industry and among others, the security industry.
1. This raises a question: What has been happening in these other thirty-two occupations that would warrant this moratorium? Does the public have the right to know what has been happening in these industries and exactly how big is this problem?
2. The foreign worker program has facilitated entry of foreign coal miners, truck drivers, fish processing workers, banking staff, caregivers etc. There have been many stories of abuse involving these occupations. Why are they not covered by the moratorium?
3. Are the occupations under moratorium less important than other occupations?
The tourist season is just starting. Hotels are booked for tour groups. Hotel Room Attendants (NOC 6661 – Light Duty Cleaners) are covered by the moratorium. The hotels and resorts outside of major metropolitan areas have many problems recruiting people to do this work. Foreign workers have filled the gap when Canadians can’t be found. Hotel rooms can’t be rented out until they have been cleaned. Hotel operators are now saying that they will have to cancel bookings or possibly close if they can’t access foreign workers. This will have a negative impact on Canada as a tourist destination. Many jobs now occupied by Canadians may be lost because of this. With loss of tourism, the economy of many communities will decline.
Cooks and Chefs are covered by the moratorium. Since restaurant and banquet halls have been able to access foreign workers with excellent cooking skills and knowledge, the ethnic food service sector has flourished. Restaurant operators have invested heavily in new restaurants based on the knowledge that they would be able to access foreign skilled cooks to prepare authentic regional specialty dishes. In most cases, involving Asian style cooking, the foreign worker cooks learned their skills as teenagers and by the time they reached their mid twenties, they developed techniques and trade secrets that made them stand-out in the industry. Many of these workers are bright and hard working. They entered the occupation because of economic necessity or family tradition. The level of skills they have attained can’t be acquired in Canada. For the most part, clever, ambitious Canadians do not envision their futures in a kitchen. They can find easier and better paying jobs elsewhere. The foreign worker program has provided the opportunity to develop an ethnic food service industry in Canada that is unparalleled in North America. When American tourists come here to eat Indian or Chinese food in the Vancouver area, you know that we have something special going-on. Over the past ten years, we have grown from a Mom and Pop type ethnic food service culture to one that now offers sophisticated authentic delicacies from all over the planet. In the past, many people did not bother to go to a restaurant offering food from their home country. Many people felt they could prepare better food at home. Now, thanks to the foreign worker program, eating out is much more adventurous and satisfying. As access to foreign cooks is now blocked under moratorium, the industry faces a brick wall. Many of the banquet halls have applied for foreign cooks to meet the demands of the wedding and party season. Without the cooks, will wedding parties have to be cancelled? These banquet halls provide an important cultural venue. Will they eventually close? Our specialty restaurants need to extend the work permits for their cooks and recruit cooks to replace those who move-on to start their own businesses, when they become permanent residents. Without access to foreign talent, will the industry fade away? Will the quality of product in sweet shops deteriorate? The Minister, Jason Kenney, has suggested that the employers increase the salaries and train Canadians to solve the problem. In reality, an employer of foreign specialty cooks pay between $16.00 and $18.00/hr for cooks and sweet makers. This is well above the Service Canada Lower Mainland prescribed wage rate of $13.25/hr. If the employers could find bright enthusiastic Canadians to train, they would not be looking off-shore. The first and second generation Canadians of immigrant parents, who are familiar with the ethnic specialty foods, are oriented towards university and have little interest in kitchen work.
4. This brings us to the question: How did we get to need all these foreign workers? In part, the answer is quite simple. Over the past twenty or so years, major changes have occurred in immigration. In the past, we had a generous family and assisted relative class that allowed lower skilled immigrants. These immigrants filled the jobs that Canadians were hesitant to do. They worked as janitors, farm labourers, construction helpers, room attendants, cooks, kitchen helpers, counter attendants and factory workers. Canada accepted many more refugees who also filled the same labour market needs. Today, for the most part, immigration is restricted to a few highly educated people with good English or French language skills. The family and assisted relative class immigrants have aged and no longer need to do the more arduous types of work. Thus, a labour shortage has evolved.
This broad spectrum of occupations involved in the moratorium, presents a high level of risk to industries and businesses that need to utilize the foreign worker program. There is no warning, phase-in or other transition measures. Many employers still don’t know that their foreign workers are affected. They think it only involves the fast food industry.
Many the vast majorities of employers using this program have carefully followed all the program rules. They have paid the required wages, not laid-off Canadians and maintained full time employment for all those who have wanted it. They have paid their Service Canada application fee of $275.00 for each worker. They have paid the workers return air fare and temporary medical insurance. They have found housing for the workers and often have given them assistance with warm winter clothing and items to set-up their households.
5. The last questions in this issue are: Why are all the good employers being punished because of a few who have crossed the line? Is this how we will now deal with foreign worker labour market problems? Does innocent until proven guilty no longer have meaning? Is the foreign worker program so bad that we can just stop it and not suffer any consequences? What need does this moratorium serve? What is more important, the Minister’s reputation and ability