Halted foreign worker program disrupting local business

The food service sector has been suspended from using the TFW Program, and the local implications are causing headaches


Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program helps employers find staff for tough-to-fill positions, but reports of exploitation and preferential use of the program has suspended the food service sector from taking part, and the suspension is already having an effect locally.

Strand’s Old House Restaurant owner Tony Wood is back to square one after losing the chef he had lined up through the program, and will only be able to offer service five days each week instead of seven until a new one is hired. This also means that his restaurant, a renowned local venue for live music, won’t be able to host the same number of shows people have come to expect until that time.

“There’s such a shortage of chefs up and down the whole valley,” said Mr. Wood, who has used the program once before to hire a skilled chef from outside the country. “There are no Canadians applying for these positions.”

According to a statement by Jason Kenney, Minister of Employment and Social Development will not process any new or pending Labour Market Opinion applications related to the Food Services Sector, and any unfilled positions tied to a previously approved Labour Market Opinion will be suspended until the completion of the ongoing review of the program.

The food service sector includes kitchen staff, servers, bartenders and any retail, grocery, or cleaning services.

It is unclear how long before food service sector employers can use the program again, but no matter how soon the program resumes, Mr. Wood said Strand’s won’t be participating again this year as there would be an inadequate amount of time for training before the influx of summer business.

Kootenay-Columbia MP David Wilks doesn’t know when the suspension will be lifted, but expects the program to return with tighter rules.

“Unfortunately, with federal programs, there’s the broad stroke, because it has to go from coast to coast,” Mr. Wilks told The Valley Echo. “Because it’s a national program, what’s good for B.C. has to be good for Newfoundland as well.”

Citing Minister Kenney, Mr. Wilks said employers may have to increase their employees’ wages to obtain workers within Canada. But many employers don’t agree that higher wages is the solution.

“We physically don’t have enough residents to fill all the jobs that need to be filled [in the summer months],” said Justin Atterbury, owner of the Rocky River Grill in Invermere. “Who in Canada would move across the country for a $14 or $15 dollar-an-hour job?”

There’s a small increase of people coming to the valley for work in the summer, but a large increase of people wanting services, he said.

“If you don’t have some way to offset that, you don’t operate.”

For employers in the food service sector, Mr. Atterbury said it’s most challenging to find skilled candidates willing to work flexible hours.

“Sure we’ll pay more, but give us the bodies that are qualified to do it,” he said.

Mr. Atterbury supports the government’s crackdown on abuse, but doesn’t agree with the suspension of just one industry.

“To blanket the restaurant industry as a whole is wrong,” he said, noting that Royal Bank of Canada and the B.C.-based HD Mining International Limited were caught exploiting the program in 2013.

He calls the recent moratorium on the food service sector a knee-jerk reaction, prompted after three McDonalds’ in Victoria were caught giving temporary foreign workers preferential employment over Canadians in April.

Mr. Atterbury hopes changes to the program will be based upon regional needs.

District of Invermere mayor Gerry Taft, owner of Gerry’s Gelati, said large corporations, by misusing government programs such as the temporary foreign worker program, often raise flags and that subsequent reforms are more damaging to small businesses.

“There are a number of employers who play by the rules, but unfortunately there were some who did not,” agreed Mr. Wilks. “And now everyone has to pay.”

Mr. Kenney’s office did not return a call to The Valley Echo.