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Temporary foreign worker program far from 'slavery'

The Federal government recently announced the shuttering of the temporary foreign worker program in the Yukon.

The Federal government recently announced the shuttering of the temporary foreign worker program in the Yukon. The program was a pilot initiative intended to help the Yukon deal with seasonal worker shortages, allowing local employers to bring in foreign workers of a fixed-term basis to satisfy local labour requirements.

The Yukon Federation of Labour trumpeted the news, decrying the program as a vehicle for “slave labour” and the cancellation as good news for Canadian workers.

While there may be some issues with the program in other jurisdictions, methinks the labour federation may be exercising some hyperbolic liberty with their description of the program as “slave labour,” a description which borders on a pretty grievous insult to those employers (or, by the federation’s definition, “slavers”) who participated in the program.

The Yukon, given our seasonal work cycle and relative isolation, has needs for such programs to ensure our economy has the necessary labour to meet the short-term needs of employers. Without available labour those projects that would otherwise be green-lit are moth-balled, and we lose not only the benefit of that specific project, but the ancillary benefits which flow from those local businesses which provide logistical or other support.

The Yukon is especially susceptible to summer worker shortages, as our season is especially short and our location is especially remote. During our summer season the rest of Canada is busy putting projects into the building phase, and we compete with jurisdictions that are more central, more accessible and cheaper to live. If no local labour was available at a reasonable wage, Yukon employers were allowed to make use of the temporary foreign worker program to bring in workers to meet their needs.

An employer under the program had to meet certain criteria when hiring, with the centerpiece being that the pay must be at least the median wage particular to that profession or position. The program was not designed to under-cut wages, but rather to provide at least the median wage to foreign workers, and only after the employer had attempted to fill the job by advertising in Canada.

The prospective foreign employee then had the option to take the job or not, much like a Canadian citizen. If the wage was commiserate with the position, the foreign worker could accept or not accept, a bargain for services rendered. Those workers are subject to all of the same work place safety legislation and oversight as any other business in Yukon. Far from a “slave labour” type position, the temporary foreign worker provides services in exchange for remuneration under the same umbrella of labour protections as any other employee.

Further, as the employment was on a temporary basis, the employees did not find themselves bound to long-term contracts which they could not break.

Some jurisdictions, such as Qatar (whose labour practises are currently under the microscope due to its upcoming hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022), take in foreign workers, remove their passports, allow long-term employment contracts and pay far less than standard wages of resident workers. These workers often do not even have an end date on their contracts and are ignored by local labour regulators, truly creating a economic sub-class of workers.

The Yukon temporary foreign worker program took great pains to avoid such pitfalls, and rather created a win-win scenario by which the local economy received the seasonal workers it needs, while the foreign worker receives fair wage in a safe and reliable work environment.

The temporary foreign worker program is designed to meet short-term needs, and for that reason is required on top of the already existing Yukon Nominee Program, which is designed to fill long-term positions. Under the Yukon Nominee Program an employer is expected to have two years worth of work for a prospective foreign employee, with the worker eventually obtaining permanent residency in Canada through the program.

The temporary foreign worker program identifies the need for seasonal workers, and allows employers to hire skilled and unskilled labour flexibly to account of the cyclical needs of a given project.

Both programs work well for the Yukon, as both target different structural issues in the Yukon labour market.

The comments from the labour federation comparing the program to slavery are insulting to local employers, as it implies that employers are taking advantage of a program to ride rough-shod over the rights of temporary workers. In my opinion it is just the opposite; local employers are providing opportunity to foreign workers to earn good wages in safe work environments, and only after seeking help in the local labour market.

The corollary benefit is that the Yukon economy as a whole keeps expanding, eventually creating more permanent jobs, which in turn leads to more Yukon nominee applications and a benefit to all residents of the Yukon.

Far from slavery, properly overseen programs such as the temporary foreign worker program keep the Yukon working, and I would encourage the Yukon government to look into renegotiating the program with the Federal government.

Graham Lang is a Whitehorse lawyer and long-time Yukoner.