Feds fool with Filipinos

Wait times could worsen at Whitehorse's fast-food counters, grocery checkouts and other retail outlets in the new year.

Wait times could worsen at Whitehorse’s fast-food counters, grocery checkouts and other retail outlets in the new year.

For that, you can thank the federal government, and its plans to toughen up rules governing the Yukon Nominee Program, which is heavily used by Whitehorse’s service sector.

The most contentious change is a requirement that foreign workers post a $10,000 security. That’s equivalent to several years’ income for a service worker in the Philippines, from where most of Yukon’s foreign workers hail.

“We’re not happy campers,” said Ailene Gayangos, vice-president of the Canadian Filipino Association of the Yukon. “It’s a very, very good program. But with the new requirements, it’s pretty hard.”

She worries the rules may end up “killing the program.”

Local businesses are also worried.

“It’s an essential program. It must continue,” said Rick Karp, president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce.

The Yukon Nominee Program should be credited with saving local businesses, which several years ago found themselves chronically short of local labour. “It was a saving grace,” said Karp.

The chamber is working with Yukon’s Department of Education, which administers the program, to petition Ottawa to reconsider the $10,000 security, which is supposed to ensure foreign workers have enough money to support themselves without work.

That’s not necessary, said Karp, noting each nominee under the territorial program is guaranteed two years’ employment with their sponsoring business.

The territory is working with Ottawa to find “creative options” to the deadlock, said Shawn Kitchen, director of labour market programs. He aims to reach an agreement by mid-January.

Karp welcomes other changes, including stricter tests to ensure foreign workers are able to speak English or French.

The federal changes come as Ottawa reacts to criticism over instances of foreign workers being mistreated by employers in several provinces.

“But it’s a different situation up here,” said Karp.

Alex Furlong, boss of the Yukon Federation of Labour, alleged this summer that two Filipino workers had been abused by Whitehorse business owners. But, at the ensuing immigration hearings, both men admitted to breaking the rules, and were consequently deported.

While most of Yukon’s foreign workers hail from the Philippines, others originate from India, Mexico, China, as well as developed nations such as Germany, France and Japan.

The Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce estimates there are approximately 500 such workers in the territory.

Foreign workers often have professional designations. So, after serving out their work term with their service-sector sponsor, they typically move on to better-paying work, said Karp. Without new workers to fill these vacancies, Whitehorse businesses will probably struggle.

Business must first try to hire locally. But the sad reality is that many of Yukon’s unemployed don’t have the ability or will to hold down a service-sector job, said Karp.

Employers pay the airfare and three months’ health insurance for foreign workers. They must also find them housing. And they pay foreign workers well above the minimum wage – Tim Horton’s, for example, usually starts its foreign workers at $11 per hour.

Another new rule handed down by Ottawa will impose a $2,000 security for each family member of a foreign worker who is brought over to the Yukon. That will prove to be a hardship, said Gayangos.

Many Filipino workers have recently brought their families to the Yukon, resulting in the ranks of the closeknit community to swell.

“Usually, I know everybody in the community,” said Gayangos. “But over the past few months, there’s quite a few faces I don’t recognize.”

It will be far harder to bring family over now.

“It’s not a very good Christmas present,” said Gayangos. “I think we’ll be feeling quite a change next year.”

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.