The upside of temporary foreign workers
Rachel Blaney is saddened by recent negative media reports concerning the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) that helps fill labour shortages when Canadians or permanent residents are not available.
Employment Minister Jason Kenney, amid allegations the program is being abused, last month placed a temporary ban on restaurants that prevents them from accessing the program.
“I have a lot of concerns about the outcomes,” said Blaney, executive director of the Immigrant Welcome Centre, which serves the Comox Valley and Campbell River. “When there’s a lot of negativity it can be hard on the everyday people that come here, with the understanding that there’s a need and they’re here to fill it. That’s not their fault.”
Blaney notes a “strong undercurrent of perceptions.” Some people feel temporary foreign workers are victims, others believe they are taking Canadian jobs.
In some cases, she said businesses need foreign workers. On the flip side, young people who grew up in the Valley also need job opportunities.
“How do we make some sort of balance in that?” Blaney said. “It’s very polarized.”
In some cases, a person relies on the program to support their family.
“It makes a world of difference to these people,” said Abel O’Brennan, owner of Coastal Black Estate Winery in Black Creek, who is entering his ninth year of bringing in workers from Mexico.
The federally-sponsored program in Mexico allows a maximum eight-month stay in Canada. It stipulates that workers need to be married. Preference is given to those with children.
O’Brennan notes foreign workers can support their entire family structure, including parents, cousins and in-laws.
One of his workers lays tile when in Mexico, but only makes about a sixth of what he earns at Coastal Black.
A few years back, when Mexicana Airlines was on its way to bankruptcy, production at the winery fell behind about 9,000 man hours, which O’Brennan needed to recover in seven weeks.
He hired eight locals, paying them 25 per cent more than the Mexican workers. By the end of the first week he had fired each one of them.
“The Mexicans could out-pace them by 40 per cent,” he said, noting it was cheaper to fly-in workers with Air Canada, house them in a hotel for six weeks and then fly them back home.
After a few years at Coastal Black, some workers don’t return, because they’ve saved enough money to start a business in Mexico.
“It’s an incredible program,” O’Brennan said.
Blaney feels the TFWP program is set up for “potential vulnerability.” Mixed with the honest employers are “sad stories of people who are taken advantage of because they don’t understand their rights, and because they don’t have the support to follow through with understanding their rights.”
Like Blaney, O’Brennan understands the other side of the issue when it comes to hiring locally. But in many cases, he said it comes down to willingness to work.
“I would be abundantly happy to hire all local people if they could compete even slightly but the attitude’s different, the work ethic’s different, the money expectations (are) different,” O’Brennan said.
“If you were to remove the agriculture program, without a doubt, agriculture in B.C. would go belly up. A lot of people depend on migrant labour now.”