Territory to expand foreign worker program

They're the ones pouring coffee at Tim Hortons, stocking shelves at Canadian Tire and mopping school floors. In short, they're doing the work that Yukoners, by and large, deign not do. They're foreign workers.

They’re the ones pouring coffee at Tim Hortons, stocking shelves at Canadian Tire and mopping school floors.

In short, they’re doing the work that Yukoners, by and large, deign not do.

They’re foreign workers. The majority 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.

Some conservatives grumble they’re taking away jobs from local workers. Some liberals fret over how they’re exploited labour.

But despite these concerns, the federal and territorial governments are standing by the programs that bring foreign workers to the territory. In fact, they plan to expand what’s on offer.

Currently, employers must offer foreign workers permanent, full-time jobs. That doesn’t help for seasonal work at tourism and mining exploration companies.

So the territory and Ottawa soon hope to allow companies to hire foreign workers for seasonal stints, said Brent Slobodin, the Yukon government’s point-man for the program.

These workers would only be eligible to stay in the territory for the period they’ve been hired to work, he said. For the rest of the year they would be expected to return to their countries of origin.

Rick Karp, president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, pointed to Kluane Drilling, which operates in Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, China and Columbia, as an example of a company that could tap into its international workforce.

Tourism companies like Holland America are equally interested in such a program, said Karp.

Employers praised the foreign worker programs at a meeting held by the chamber and the territorial government on Wednesday at the Gold Rush Inn.

The meeting came on the heels of concerns expressed last week by the Yukon Federation of Labour that some foreign workers are being exploited. President Alex Furlong declined to offer any details then, and he didn’t return a phone call to the Yukon News on the matter this week.

Yvonne Clarke, president of the Canadian Filipino Association of the Yukon, said in an e-mail that her organization “is aware of some of the problems that have occurred for some temporary foreign workers.”

Her organization and the labour federation plan to hold a joint press conference next week, she wrote.

Nationally, concerns have arisen about the power wielded by employers who bring over foreign workers. These workers cannot easily switch jobs, because their work permits are tied to the employer who nominated them.

At Wednesday’s meeting, employers expressed concern that if these restrictions were relaxed, rival bosses would poach workers who had been flown to Canada at another company’s expense.

However, there are cases in which a foreign worker has left one job because of personal conflicts and re-applied through the program for a new work placement, said Dave Sloan, another territorial official on the foreign worker file.

The wages of foreign workers are vetted by Ottawa, which ensures the salaries are comparable to what’s paid for similar jobs across the country.

Nobody voiced fears of exploitation at Wednesday’s meeting. But several employers did complain about how highly trained immigrants have difficulty obtaining jobs in their field when they arrive in Canada.

“I know for a fact, in the Filipino community, we must have the most highly educated people flipping burgers on the planet,” said Peter Allen, owner of Northern Denture Clinic. “It’s sad. It’s a crime, really, to waste all this knowledge.”

Language skills are the biggest impediment faced by skilled foreign workers, said Patrick MacKenzie, a research analyst with Immigration Canada.

Denny Kobayashi, Yukon’s director of business development, countered that “it might be unfortunate that a PhD is flipping hamburgers, but we need someone to flip burgers to support our economy.”

And, currently, it’s extremely difficult to persuade Yukon residents to take these jobs. Kobayashi related how one of his daughters “thinks $50,000 is a lousy job.”

Welcome to Yukon’s topsy-turvy economy, where there’s both a labour shortage and widespread unemployment. One in 10 Yukoners are jobless, according to Statistics Canada. The figure is disputed by the territory, but everyone agrees there are plenty of jobless residents, and the majority of the unemployed are First Nations residents.

This embarrassment was only tiptoed around during the chamber meeting, where there was nary a First Nation person present.

“We have the foreign worker program because we can’t get locals to do the job,” said Karp in an interview. “And when they do come in, it’s for a short time.”

It’s not for lack of trying, said Doug Terry, owner of both Tim Hortons franchises in Whitehorse. He’d be happy to hire more local workers. It would save him the cost of flying employees in from the Philippines.

But there’s little local interest in taking jobs at his stores when there are vacancies for better-paying government positions.

“It’s a fast-food restaurant. We can’t compete with government,” he said.

He offers starting salaries of $10 per hour, well above the minimum wage of $8.93. Foreign workers, who are expected to have previous experience in service jobs, usually start at $11 per hour, said Terry.

He praised the foreign workers he’s taken aboard for being hard-working, cheerful and loyal.

“I have customers tell me every single day how efficient this ship is run,” said Terry.

It can take anywhere between several months and several years for foreign workers to become landed immigrants. More than 100 of the foreign workers accepted by the Yukon since 2007 have become Canadian citizens.

In Terry’s case, he’s found most foreign workers have continued to work at his store, even after receiving permanent residency.

“Now they’re bringing over their families,” he said.

Terry hasn’t heard any tales of foreign workers being abused, either. “I don’t know what the problems are,” he said. “If there were issued, I think I would of heard of it.”

Slobodin hasn’t heard complaints, either. But, as one of the architects of the Yukon program, he said he regularly receives thank-you letters from foreign workers, some of whom have fled military dictatorships. “I get letters that say, ‘Thank you for the opportunity for a good, safe life.’”

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