Foreign workers championed despite slowdown

With help wanted signs posted at KFC and local grocery stores, it's clear the Yukon still needs foreign workers.

With help wanted signs posted at KFC and local grocery stores, it’s clear the Yukon still needs foreign workers.

This week, the Yukon’s low-skilled foreign worker program—established as a pilot project in 2007—was greenlighted for another two years.

In its first two years of existence, the program brought 214 workers to the territory.

“Is it good thing? Yes,” said Dan Charlebois, owner of Canadian Tire. “Has it been successful? Very. All you have to do is come into our store, purchase something, and see how long the lineups are—they’re not very long.

“Go into Superstore, which doesn’t have any foreign workers, and see how long you wait to pay for your groceries.”

Nationally, the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program has come under criticism for pumping unskilled labourers into an economy that, with the recession, cannot support them.

“There is a view that there is a need in Canada for jobs that can only be filled by temporary workers, but that need is diminishing,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a late-February press conference in Vancouver.

Alberta had 57,000 foreign workers during the economy’s peak; now, many of them are finding themselves jobless, broke and ineligible for EI payments.

“The sky has started to fall on all construction workers in Alberta, but it’s fallen first and fastest on the temporary foreign workers. There’s no doubt,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, to the Canadian Press in February.

“When the economy contracts, a real problem emerges for those workers because they don’t have permanent residency and they have families at home that desperately need them to continue working,” said Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs.

“Here in BC, there’s a likelihood that more and more of the people that came as temporary foreign workers are finding themselves in the underground economy,” he said.

Or, they just get sent home.

In December, 70 Mexican and Jamaican workers were fired without notice from a Guelph, Ontario, mushroom farm and immediately repatriated.

For workers who have uprooted their lives to come to Canada in search of work, the effects of a job loss can be devastating.

Even under a booming economy, temporary foreign workers are stripped of basic labour rights afforded to resident Canadians.

“If you have a falling out with your employer, you get deported under this program, you don’t get sent out to find another job,” said Meggs.

Temporary foreign workers are often unwilling to reject unsafe or strenuous working conditions because the consequences are “catastrophic,” he said.

In contrast to the federal program, the Yukon’s strives to give workers a permanent home in the territory.

“They are on a temporary foreign worker permit, but the real intent behind this program is to thrust immigrant workers towards permanent residence,” said Kitchen.

“They have to make clear, through their application, that they do have an intention of becoming permanent residents,” he said.

Even while Canada’s manufacturing and management sectors takes a hit, “low-skilled workers are in demand, even when there’s a recession,” said Yvonne Clarke, president of the Canadian Filipino Association of the Yukon.

Armed with a formidable work ethic, foreign workers will still be in prime demand should a recession come knocking, said Ailene Gayangos, vice-president of the Canadian Filipino Association of the Yukon.

Taking more than two or three sick days is an extreme rarity among the Yukon’s Filipino temporary workers, said Gayangos.

“They have a thinking in their mind of ‘no work, no pay,’ … that’s very attractive to employers,” she said.

The Yukon ushered in its low-skilled foreign worker program in November, 2007 as a faster way to bring low-skilled foreign workers into the territory.

“Obviously, we have people unemployed in the Yukon, but those people that are unemployed are not interested in these entry-level jobs,” said Kitchen.

“From the Yukon government’s perspective, our priority is to see Yukon workers hired,” he said.

In February, the Yukon had 1,200 unemployed workers.

Across Canada, proportional job losses are rivalling even those in the United States.

Still, it’s unlikely that laid-off auto-sector employees in Ontario and former CBC reporters will journey north in search of work at a Whitehorse Tim Hortons.

“We’re still looking to hire within Canada first, because it is less expensive to hire locally than it is to go through a process where you have to deal with three levels of government: Canadian, territorial and the Philippine government,” said Charlebois.

“It’s really an option of last resort,” said Kitchen.

Contact Tristin Hopper at