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Yukon's foreign workers deserve fair wages

Go into just about any retail store or fast food outlet in Whitehorse these days and odds are that you will be served by someone whose place of birth was not Canada.

Go into just about any retail store or fast food outlet in Whitehorse these days and odds are that you will be served by someone whose place of birth was not Canada. The Yukon Nominee Program, which was introduced in 2008, has quickly caused a dramatic shift in the makeup of segments the local labour force.

I can still recall conditions during the so-called “labour shortage” in the middle of last decade. I remember extremely long delays waiting for my meal at my then favourite breakfast spot simply because of a lack in service staff. I remember the empty shelves in retail stores.

The stories I heard from local employers and managers around that time contrasted significantly with my experience as a Whitehorse teenager in the mid- to late-1990s, when jobs were hard to find. Those of us from families of modest means, who had little choice but to work for our spending money, more or less accepted the terms of employment that were offered to us or someone else would.

Fast forward a decade later, and there had been a very obvious shift. Rather than a shortage of jobs there was a shortage of employees.

Enter the Yukon Nominee Program in 2008, which was designed to allow employers to bring in migrant workers to take - as the headline over Joshua Clarkson’s commentary in the March 11 Yukon News put it - the “jobs that nobody else wants.”

There is little doubt in my mind that this was a needed move designed to correct an imbalance and fill an obvious void in the market.

But it is important that we not lose sight of the original aim of the Yukon Nominee Program or other initiatives like it.

When the federal government announced last fall that it would be increasing the minimum wage paid to fast food workers under the program from $11.75 to $15, the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce was not pleased. The chamber’s president suggested to the CBC that it meant we’d pay “a lot more for a hamburger and a cup of coffee, maybe double what we’re paying now.”

That statement was obviously a gross exaggeration, as it is difficult to see how a 27 per cent increase in labour costs - being only one cost among many that business owners pay - could possibly translate into a doubling of prices.

But more importantly it confirmed my fear that in the eyes of business the original aim of the Yukon Nominee Program - filling voids in the labour market - had metastasized into something much more problematic. Rather than being about filling unmet needs, it now seems to be about lowering costs.

Over the past few decades, whole industries in North America have been hollowed out by the outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries like China and India. By now we are all familiar with the wages paid to factory workers overseas - amounts that many of us in the West would not be willing to bend over to pick up off the ground.

This shift has created both winners - consumers who’ve enjoyed lower prices and investors who’ve reaped the benefits of lower costs - and losers - those who were formerly employed in well-paid manufacturing jobs who are now forced to scrape by in the service sector.

It turns out there is a lot of poverty out there in the world, and as a result there is a virtually endless pool of labour willing to do the same work that North Americans can do for a fraction of the price.

It also turns out that much of that labour is willing to relocate to work as well. Now that employers have successfully transferred the production of goods to low-wage countries, they’ve set their eyes on bringing low-paid employees here for the provision of services.

Thankfully when it comes to migrant labour (as opposed to outsourced production) our government still maintains some semblance of control through the immigration process.

It is sound policy to fill shortages in the labour pool with migrant workers, and it is admirable to give those from impoverished parts of the world an opportunity to move to Canada improve their lot in life. I’m not so parochial to be concerned whether the person serving my coffee is a born-and-raised Yukoner or a new immigrant from the Philippines. People are people.

My only concern is that whatever their place of origin they be paid a living wage and that their employers not be able to use the fact that there is a limitless supply of workers in the world who could fill their shoes to put continual downward pressure on their compensation. Ideally, we would have a higher minimum wage for all Yukoners, but that is an issue only the Yukon legislature can determine, not the federal government, and a subject for another column.

Careful management of programs like the Yukon Nominee Program is essential if we don’t want them to become the next leg of the economic “race for the bottom,” with the poor wallowing in a stagnant labour market so that higher-paid skilled workers can benefit from lower prices and owners can enjoy bigger profits.

Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.