The federal Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) program was designed precisely for areas such as Yorkton where rapid economic growth is making it difficult for many employers to fill vacant positions or expand their businesses to meet consumer demand.
“With our growing demand in Yorkton, things are booming so people are asking, ‘why are you only open ‘til 10, why can’t you be open to 10:30’,” said Mark Butchko, owner of Dairy Queen on Broadway Street. “People are working longer, there’s more activity so when people work longer days, there’s demand from the public, you have to be open more hours, you need more employees.”
Butchko’s restaurant has used the TFW program in the past to supplement his staffing requirements. It’s an arduous process, he said. Employers must do their due diligence, locally and nationally, in attempting to fill positions with Canadians. If they cannot, they have to pay for a Labour Market Opinion (LMO). If that comes back favourably, it can still be months before temporary workers arrive in Canada and relocation costs are the responsibility of the employer.
“It’s a hard program to use,” Butchko said. “It’s not like all of a sudden I say, ‘I need workers tomorrow’ and they come tomorrow. It’s a one year process.”
Despite that, controversy over the program has been growing ever since the Royal Bank of Canada last year was accused of using TFWs to replace dozens of staff in the bank’s investor services division in Toronto. The CEO later apologized and the bank offered to find displaced employees new positions within the company.
In February, it was oilsands contractor Pacer-Promec that laid off 65 Canadian ironworkers to allegedly replace them with cheaper labour from Croatia.
Earlier this month, the controversy came to a head when three Victoria McDonald’s franchises were accused of bringing in temporary foreign workers when qualified Canadians were available.
Furthermore, CBC aired interviews with foreign McDonald’s employees who compared their working conditions to “slavery.”
McDonald’s Canada cut ties with the Victoria franchise owner and on April 23, fearing damage to the company’s reputation, announced it was voluntarily freezing its use of the program and launching a third-party audit of its foreign worker practices.
The following day, CBC obtained a recording of a conference call between McDonald’s Canada CEO John Betts and franchisees in which he calls the TFW controversy “bullshit,” and says that Jason Kenney, Canada’s employment minister, “gets it.”
Following these reports, the federal government blacklisted the Victoria McDonald’s locations and on April 24, the minister announced a moratorium on hiring TFWs across the entire food service industry while the government conducts a review of the program.
The controversy elicited an immediate response from Saskatchewan stakeholders.
“The Temporary Foreign Worker Program continues to be a vital component of the growth of Saskatchewan’s economy,” wrote Steve McLellan, CEO of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce. “For many businesses, it is only through the availability of foreign workers that they have been able to meet the demand and grow. Contrary to popular belief, employers are not using the program to save money by bringing in workers from other countries. It just doesn’t work that way because using the TFW program is costly.”
Derek Lothian, executive director of the Saskatchewan Manufacturing Council, Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, warned against “throwing out the baby with the bath water.”
“Very few will argue that Saskatchewan must do a better job of developing its workforce from within. It’s a necessity,” he wrote. “Yet even fewer will argue that’s an easy task. The challenges are complex and wide-ranging. There is no silver bullet or overnight solution. That’s why we must put aside politics and ideology, and focus instead on policies that improve, not punish, employers’ use of foreign-trained workers.”
Butchko said he does not doubt there are some abusers and worries a few bad apples could ruin things for everybody.
“We’re fair with the industry, we only ask for people that we actually need,” he said.
He is also taking media reports with a grain of salt.
“We don’t know the whole situation,” he said. “We haven’t heard both sides; we haven’t heard all the stories from everybody, what actually happened.”
Juanita Polegi, Yorkton Chamber of Commerce executive director, said there is concern in the local business community.
“I think for the most part, the few businesses I’ve spoken to, everyone’s concerned,” she said. “I think everyone just wants to make sure everyone is treated fairly.”