Complex program does little to solve staff shortage

A Taste of India is looking for a few good chefs who can bake tasty tandoori chicken or whip together scrumptious samosas.

A Taste of India is looking for a few good chefs who can bake tasty tandoori chicken or whip together scrumptious samosas.

It’s willing to pay $40,000 a year to each successful applicant, said restaurant manager Kirn Dhillon.

But nobody with the right skills is interested.

The restaurant advertised cook and chef positions in the Yukon News for months. It received no response.

So Dhillon looked overseas and found a crew of workers in India with the necessary skills who were eager to immigrate to Canada.

But now, he’s having trouble getting them here.

“They paint a rosy picture and make it look easy,” said Dhillon after a luncheon meeting on foreign-worker recruitment hosted by the High Country Inn on Friday.

Before drafting workers from overseas, an employer must prove it’s exhausted its local-hire options.

That means clipping job advertisements and submitting them to Service Canada with an application to recruit from overseas.

But, after advertising with the Yukon News for months, Dhillon was told the local paper doesn’t have the readership to fulfill the program’s requirements.

So the restaurant spent “several hundred dollars” advertising in national newspapers.

After a month, the Canadian search has netted two applicants from Montreal, but neither has experience working in an Indian kitchen, said Dhillon.

What should have been a 12-month process has stretched into 24 months.

Every delay hurts the restaurant, which has already cut back its weekend hours because of the staff shortage.

A Taste of India was also in line to cater the recent Indian festival of lights banquet — a job that would have netted the business a lot of community exposure.

But it didn’t have the staff to get the job done, so it had to back out.

The co-ordinators had the Indian fare sent up from Vancouver.

Help wanted signs are not new to the windows of Whitehorse businesses.

The High Country Inn hotel and restaurant has been understaffed all summer.

“All departments suffered and the quality suffered,” said owner Barry Bellchambers.

Although salaries start more than 50 per cent above minimum wage, he’s had little interest in the unskilled service jobs he’s posted.

The High Country has tried to recruit from overseas, but ran into the same roadblocks as Taste of India.

“We’ve been applying through different programs for the past couple of years, but we weren’t getting anywhere,” said Bellchambers.

“We were trying, but going about it the wrong way.”

So his applications kept getting rejected on technicalities.

“I’m not the smartest businessperson, but I’ve realized that if I’m doing things wrong other businesses must be having the same problems,” he said.

So Bellchambers decided to do something about it.

Last week, he brought up foreign worker consultant Tom Steele, to demystify the complex process and meet with local business owners interested in bringing in foreign workers.

Bringing a worker in to Canada is neither cheaper nor easier than hiring from inside Canada, said Steele.

“(Service Canada’s program) is not straightforward and it’s not easy to use, but I want to be really positive and explain the basics so people know how it works.”

The program could take more than six months.

First, employers must prove they’ve exhausted their Canadian options through advertising the jobs in papers across the country.

Then they apply to Service Canada for the go-ahead to bring workers in.

If Service Canada OKs the application, the recruited worker can apply for a work permit.

Workers recruited for skilled jobs, like managers and professionals, can use the permits to apply for permanent-resident status.

Those in unskilled jobs, including the lower echelons of sales, maintenance and manufacturing, can only stay for 12 months and employers must pay their airfare home.

Service Canada will not approve permits for part-time, temporary, commissioned or self-employed workers.

Once foreign workers are in the country, they have all the same employees’ rights as Canadians and must be paid a fair wage.

Currently the Service Canada region covers BC and the Yukon — it’s like the “mouse sleeping with the elephant,” said Steele.

There is only a “trickle of applications from the Yukon,” compared with BC.

So the territory gets overlooked in that equation, according to Dhillon and Bellchambers.

Both business owners are lobbying government to open a foreign-recruitment office in Whitehorse to help local businesses use Service Canada’s program without getting bogged down in paperwork.

Currently the Yukon has a “badly underutilized” program that attracts entrepreneurs to the territory through the Yukon Business Immigrant Nominee Program, Economic Development Minister Jim Kenyon told the assembled business people on Friday.

But highlighting the program and easing the path to bring foreign workers to the territory “will be a priority” for the government, Kenyon added.

Meanwhile Dhillon has taken matters into his own hands.

He has drafted a petition and hopes to get 1,000 signatures of support for importing the cooks.

He hopes the petition will push Yukon politicians to lobby Ottawa to have a foreign-worker office set up in Whitehorse, which will help his small business stay in the black.