Chamber champions temporary foreign workers

Canada's temporary foreign worker program is good for business and good for Yukon, according to Rick Karp. The president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce says the program has increased wages and filled gaps in labour supply.

Canada’s temporary foreign worker program is good for business and good for Yukon, according to Rick Karp.

The president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce says the program has increased wages and filled gaps in labour supply.

The federal program has come under scrutiny in the last year after HD Mining International Ltd., a Chinese-backed company, brought 201 workers to its coal mine in Tumbler Ridge, B.C., as temporary foreign workers.

More recently, reports surfaced that the Royal Bank of Canada had planned to replace 45 Canadian jobs with foreign workers under the program.

The government of Canada has promised a review of the program, which has doubled in size over the last decade.

Meanwhile, the Yukon government is planning an annex of the program that would bring control to the territory. That transfer is expected shortly.

The annex has been delayed because of the concerns with the federal program, said Karp. It was supposed to have been in place last November.

But taking local control will be good for the program, for business and for the foreign workers, he said.

“This is kudos to the Yukon government and the Department of Education, advanced education branch, for doing that. Because we are very actively protecting our foreign workers.”

Yukon businesses require foreign labour for many different reasons, and hire from around the world, said Karp.

While the stereotype is one of cheap, unskilled labour, the reality here in the Yukon is much different. Our demand for seasonal labour, especially in the mining and tourism sectors, can often not be met by local supply.

Bombay Peggy’s in Dawson currently has one temporary foreign worker, who is working in housekeeping for her second season.

Finding Canadians to fill the position for her nine-month season has been a challenge, said owner Wendy Cairns.

“I find it really hard to get somebody in that position who can do the whole season.”

Hiring students for the summer season is no problem, but the shoulder seasons in spring and fall are more difficult, she said.

While she found the application process intimidating at first, the results have been good, said Cairns.

“It certainly helped me with my little business here, to fill an important gap.”

In some cases, it’s the highly skilled positions that are hardest to fill.

“We’re unable to get skilled, with appropriate experience, helicopter pilots from Canada alone,” said Clint Walker, operations manager with Trans North Helicopters. “There just isn’t the number of skilled pilots out there for the demand.”

The problem in that particular industry is that clients demand pilots with a certain number of hours of flying time, regardless of how skilled they are, he said.

“Unfortunately for us, our industry customers often dictate the minimum number of hours that they’ll allow a pilot on a job.”

But the company would like to see that standard changed, said Walker.

“It’s a very imprecise measure of a pilot’s skill, because it depends more on the individual than on the number of hours they’ve flown.”

While there are many Canadian helicopter pilots looking for work, most of them are just out of flight school and do not have the experience required for many jobs in the Yukon.

Until those expectations change, Trans North must look outside of Canada, to countries like New Zealand and Australia, to find qualified pilots.

Critics assert that foreign workers help drive down wages for everyone. Not so, said Karp. The temporary foreign worker program has driven wages up, not down, in the Yukon, he said.

That’s because, in order to apply for the program, employers must offer wages consistent with Canada’s National Occupational Classification, which sets appropriate salary levels for different types of professions.

“They tend, in the past, to have been higher than what we were currently offering in Yukon. And so the wage rates have increased in Yukon.”

And in Yukon, abuses of the program have been the rare exception to the rule, said Karp.

Safeguards for workers will only increase once the program is transferred to the territory, he said.

Critics also worry that use of foreign labour could lower workplace safety standards. The government is working with Employment Standards and with the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board to ensure that the program works as intended.

“To make a general statement that foreign workers are treated with less respect or less standards than Canadian workers is not true, here in Yukon.”

And some foreign workers have no interest in becoming Canadian citizens, he said.

“There are people in other countries who relish that. They want that. They’re applying for that.”

And there is an avenue for those who wish to immigrate. A worker and employer might choose to switch to the Yukon Nominee Program after they have developed a relationship, which would allow the foreign worker to qualify for permanent residency.

“It’s good for everyone,” said Karp. “It really is. It’s good for everyone, and it’s worked out well for locals as well, because it has increased wages.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at