Hiring of temporary foreign workers raises hackles in Alberta

Significant numbers of temporary foreign workers continued to move to Alberta even as the economy shed jobs during the recession, says a new report from the province's largest labour group.

The draft report from the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) found that although overall Alberta employment numbers dropped in 2009 and 2010, companies continued to bring in new temporary foreign workers in a hiring spree that first ramped up during the province's boom years. While the umbrella union group agreed there are true shortages of workers in a few trades and skills, the numbers show the real scarcity is in the "people willing to work for less," the group said

The issue of temporary foreign workers is of special concern in Alberta. In recent years, Alberta employers have been granted more than half of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada's approvals (called Labour Market Opinions) to bring in low-skilled temporary foreign workers, many of them destined for service jobs.

Unions and other critics say the temporary workers are more likely to be exploited by employers and the federal program drives down wages, while firms with an eye on expansion say they have no choice but to look overseas for employees.

"It's really very tough to hire," said Bobby Maglalang, human resources manager at Calgary-based Hi-Flyer Food (Canada) Inc., which owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut franchises in Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec.

In Alberta, Hi-Flyer Food has 110 temporary foreign workers – more than a quarter of its current staff – on its payroll, and is short more than 200 workers across the province. Mr. Maglalang said even the lowest-paid "team member" makes more than minimum wage, and it's not a matter of paying temporary foreign workers less than Canadians or permanent residents. The real issue is that restaurant owners can't match salaries paid by the oil and gas industry. "We need more workers. If only we could avoid hiring foreign workers."

Richard Truscott, Alberta director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said given the amount of red tape and cost involved in hiring foreign workers, most businesses would rather forgo the process. But he said there are just not enough Canadians willing to do some jobs. Mr. Truscott said the numbers compiled by the AFL might be explained by the cyclical nature of the economy and the "lag effect" in the federal program. Many business owners were caught off guard by the downturn that followed the boom years of 2006-2008, he said. "By the time those individuals arrived and were being integrated into the business, the economy had gone sour," Mr. Truscott said.

The draft report from the AFL said in 2009, while unemployment rose and a net 28,500 jobs were lost, Ottawa still allowed provincial employers to bring in 28,545 new temporary foreign workers. In 2010, 8,600 Alberta jobs were lost but 22,992 new temporary workers came in.

In the same three years and up to 2011 as the economy began to improve, the number of temporary foreign workers living in the province stayed between 58,000 and 66,000.

Speaking during a visit to Fort McMurray, AFL president Gil McGowan said while the Harper government says it wants Thursday's federal budget to breathe new life into trades and skills training, it is not really pushing companies to take apprenticeship programs seriously. He noted under new rules brought in last April, some employers can now pay temporary workers 5- to 15-per-cent less than the prevailing wage for Canadians.

"Through the temporary foreign worker program, they're actually distorting the labour market," Mr. McGowan said.

The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013
Byline: Kelly Cryderman

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