Bring in the foreign temps

The Yukon government is pushing forward with plans to bring foreign workers into the territory on a short-term, seasonal basis, starting this summer. The measure is meant to ease the territory's labour shortage.

The Yukon government is pushing forward with plans to bring foreign workers into the territory on a short-term, seasonal basis, starting this summer.

The measure is meant to ease the territory’s labour shortage. But, depending on how many employers decide to hire seasonal workers, it may also profoundly change the character of the territory’s foreign worker programs.

The Yukon currently has approximately 1,200 foreign workers, according to the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce. Many have arrived through the territory’s nominee program, which allows local businesses to sponsor foreign workers.

They’re largely the ones slinging coffee at Tim Hortons, stocking shelves at Canadian Tire, and mopping school floors. In short, they’re doing the kind of work that Yukoners do not deign to do.

After workers complete their nomination contract, it’s not uncommon for them to move on to better-paying jobs and attain permanent residency. They become Yukoners – witness Whitehorse’s burgeoning Filipino community.

But that won’t happen with seasonal workers. When their contract is up, they’re out.

Seasonal contracts are being introduced at the behest of tourism outfits and mining exploration companies, which both conduct the bulk of their business during the summer.

Education Minister Patrick Rouble, whose department runs the nominee program, announced this and other changes on Wednesday, along with Yukon Senator Daniel Lang, who stood in for the federal Human Resources minister.

The changes have prompted speculation that Yukon’s mines, faced with a looming labour shortage, will recruit foreign workers. Rouble played these fears down, noting his government would prefer to see residents take these new jobs, and that training programs are in place to ease Yukoners into these roles.

But foreign workers are a needed “additional tool” for a territory short on people willing and able to work, said Rouble. These workers enjoy the same labour standards as all Canadians, he noted: most foreign workers start at service jobs being paid around $12 per hour.

In December, the chamber of commerce warned wait times at retail outlets could grow far longer in 2011, if Ottawa stuck with tougher rules on foreign workers.

The most contentious change was a requirement that foreign workers post a $10,000 bond. That’s the equivalent to several years’ income for a service worker in the Philippines.

Rouble promised the issue would to be resolved “in the near future.”

Ottawa is also giving the territory the power to fast track the entry of foreign workers for certain industries without a federal assessment.

“That’s a big deal,” said Rick Karp, the chamber’s president. He estimates it takes between six weeks to several months for companies to receive the green light from Ottawa. “Now, it’s going to be really fast,” he said.

Lang rattled off some rosy statistics. The Yukon has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, and the biggest increase in retail sales.

When the territory’s labour shortage is compared to slumping economies elsewhere, “it’s a nice problem to have,” he said.

Rouble emphasized the training and support the government offered foreign workers, so they can “feel that they, too, can call themselves Yukoners.”

Perhaps. But, once their contract is up, they may have to do that back in their home country.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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