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English tests affect employers and families

Local employers are complaining about English language requirements their foreign workers must pass to gain permanent residency in Canada.

Local employers are complaining about English language requirements their foreign workers must pass to gain permanent residency in Canada.

In July 2012, the federal immigration department required that anyone who wanted to come to Canada through the Provincial Nominee Program must pass an English or French test.

Yukon employers, especially those who own small businesses, are only feeling the effects of this change now. Through the program, employers can nominate foreign workers to stay in Canada.

Although the official change was made in 2012, the language test requirements were in place since 2011, according to a document from the Department of Education, which administers the program with the federal government.

Prior to that, Yukon employers were allowed to gauge their workers’ language abilities themselves - either through an interview or proof of English language courses.

Rick Karp, the president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, does not agree with the standardized tests. Workers have to achieve a certain score on each section of the test.

“My understanding of this is even if you are a professor of English language at Oxford University in England and you want to immigrate to Canada through the nominee program, you have to do the test. Now that to me doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Karp lost a Japanese hairstylist who worked for his wife’s hair salon because he failed the written portion of the test.

Although he was already working in Whitehorse, the employee had to take the exam when the change was implemented. The stylist’s position falls under the skilled worker category of the nominee program, so he had to achieve higher scores to be accepted for residency.

The stylist, who is now back in Japan, attempted the test twice. Karp said that the written section of the exam “has nothing to do with his position.”

“This is very upsetting because he had a very big following in Whitehorse,” he said. “His oral skills, his listening skills were fine. Absolutely fine. And for over a year his dealings with clients were absolutely perfection,” he added.

The English language requirements were introduced by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the department which oversees the nominee programs in all the provinces and territories. It decided to change the rules to ensure that applicants would successfully integrate into Canada, according to an email from spokesman Glenn Johnson.

Approved applicants for skilled workers in the Yukon have dropped by nearly half since the change. In 2010, there were 41 accepted and by 2012 only 23. The rate dropped only by 25 per cent for service sector workers, who fall under the Critical Impact Workers category.

But the decline in applicants could also have to do with the economy, the document from the Education Department states.

‘There should be more flexibility’

Mike Thorpe, the owner of McDonald’s in Whitehorse, said that he has used the program less for the past few years because business has slowed. However, he still prefers the nominee program over the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, through which workers do not have a shot at residency.

“The TFWP is just that, it’s just temporary. And our lack of qualified applicants is not going to be temporary,” Thorpe said.

He owes the success of his franchise to the nominee program, Thorpe said. In terms of granting the workers residency, “What better gift can we give them?”

If the English language requirements will improve the program, Thorpe agrees with them. “Fine-tune it and tweak it because it needs to stay alive,” he said.

But like Karp, other employers do not agree with the one-size-fits-all model of the test. Aurora Viernes, who recruits workers from the Philippines through the nominee program to work as janitors in Whitehorse, thinks the rules are too tough.

Viernes’s janitors tend to clean businesses during off-hours, so they do not usually interact with clients, she said. One of the workers she tried nominating has a university degree in accounting in the Philippines and failed the reading portion of the test. It wasn’t always this tough, she said.

Viernes said her employees can also improve their English once they get to Whitehorse by enrolling in free language courses offered by the Multicultural Centre of the Yukon.

“For us as a small business, it’s really hard. It’s just cleaning, so why are we getting this?” she asked in a mixture of Tagalog and English.

Whitehorse residents of Filipino descent have complained that the change seems to be a way to reduce the number of Filipinos coming to the territory.

Filipinos represent 53 per cent of the applicants entering through the Yukon Nominee Program since it was created in 2007.

“It’s a way of redistributing the countries of origin without necessarily saying it in terms of formal policies” said Aileen Maningas, the vice-president of the Canadian-Filipino Association of the Yukon.

Maningas echoed Viernes’s and Karp’s criticism of the language requirements, that the test should not be the same for everyone.

“I think there should be more flexibility,” she said. The test should be dependent on the applicant’s first language and the nature of the job they will be working in, she said.

Blood’s thicker than water

Some employers also use the nominee program to sponsor extended family members. As it stands, only immediate family can be sponsored through Canada’s immigration programs.

Viernes said she has referred her nieces and nephews to work for Thorpe.

Helen Truong has also been trying to get her niece to work in her hair salon through the nominee program. And she’s been trying for the last three years.

Unable to pay more than $12 per hour as a small business owner raising two kids, Truong said she gets employees who don’t last long. She offers cheaper services than other salons in town but hairdressers tend to work for her competitors, the “fancy” salons, she said.

The applicants she has received specialize in cutting either women’s or men’s hair, when she needs someone who can do both, Truong said.

Like Viernes’s potential employee, Truong’s niece also holds an accounting degree. She also obtained a hairstyling diploma and can cut, perm, and colour hair.

Truong said she would be the perfect fit, since she is also doing her own bookkeeping.

Her niece almost came through the nominee program in 2010, but she got sick for a year. Once they implemented the language test, the proof of her taking English as second language was no longer accepted.

Truong’s niece lives in a suburban town in Vietnam and would have to fly to Ho Chi Minh City to take the exam. In Vietnam, one would need to complete a one-year course to even be eligible to take the exam, Truong said.

So it’s not just a matter of paying an extra $250 to take the exam - she would also have to abandon her job and move to the city for a year.

Similar difficulties exist in the Philippines, said Viernes.

Truong doesn’t understand why it should be so difficult. She hasn’t had any relatives join her here from Vietnam since she moved to Whitehorse 10 years ago.

She does not meet the minimum annual income of $28,315 to even be eligible to sponsor her mother.

“I have nobody. That’s why I want only one. One.”

Contact Krystle Alarcon at