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Impact of changes to TFW program 'worse than I thought': MP

Chamber hosts roundtable for businesses, MP to discuss concerns

By: Victoria Paterson

  |  Posted: Saturday, Jul 05, 2014 06:00 am

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St. Albert’s MP learned about immediate and further-reaching impacts of the recently announced changes to the temporary foreign worker program on Thursday.

The St. Albert and District Chamber of Commerce hosted a private roundtable with local businesses and Brent Rathgeber, the Edmonton-St. Albert MP, so Rathgeber could hear about the possible impacts of the updates to the program announced by the federal government in late June.

“The situation is actually worse than I thought,” Rathgeber said. Changes include a 10 per cent cap on a site’s workforce as temporary foreign workers, shorter stays for the workers and an increase to the fees for applying to use the program.

Rathgeber said he heard from some franchise owners who operate McDonald’s and Tim Hortons in Edmonton and St. Albert.

“It is quite conceivable, and they told me I could tell you, both Tim Hortons and McDonald’s may not be able to operate any of their stores 24/7,” he said. He added that possibility is premised on having to scale down the temporary foreign worker slice of their staff from about one-third to 10 per cent of their employees.

But more immediate impacts that both Rathgeber, and local chamber CEO Lynda Moffat noted was that some business owners are turning down chances for expansion because of their staffing issues.

“They can’t staff the stores they have, why do they want to build another one?” Rathgeber asked.

There are impacts on Canadian workers when the restaurants they work at are understaffed, Rathgeber said. They get overworked and frustrated – and leave.

A ripple effect could occur as well, he noted. If fast food restaurants aren’t open as much, they won’t buy as much material – and some of them purchase locally.

Philanthropic donations from local franchisees might go down as their profits dwindle, he added.

He said in some high volume, low-margin industries, raising wages could have a dramatic impact.

In addition to the food services industry, people from the hotel, industrial construction and even health industry came to the roundtable to express their concerns.

The health industry representatives at the meeting are concerned about patient care if they lose access to temporary foreign workers.

The industrial construction sector is concerned about the upward pressure on wages in the restaurant industry, which might cause them to lose workers or up their wages so bids aren’t as competitive.

“We have to increase the (worker) pool. Because as long as it’s a finite pool, increasing wages just causes you to retain people or steal people back which causes problems for somebody else,” Rathgeber said. He’d like to see more permanent immigration.

“The T has to go. We need foreign workers, we need permanent foreign workers, a.k.a. immigration, and that’s going to solve all the problems,” he said, adding that it would give the workers the ability to change jobs if they’re facing abuse.

Outside of organized labour, Rathgeber suggested it would be tough to find people in this who would deny the necessity of the temporary foreign worker program.

But in other places in Canada – including vote-rich south Ontario – the program is unpopular.

“This is a political solution to an economic problem,” he said.

In the short term, he thinks that the changes should be reversed, or Alberta exempted. In the long term, the MP wants to see more immigration.

Moffat said chambers of commerce on a national and provincial level have been trying to draw the federal government’s attention to the issues the changes could cause.

“I’m not sure if people realize the devastating economic impact that the changes to the temporary foreign workers program are causing even here, right in our own community,” she said.

It could stymie local growth. Moffat gave the example of building a new hotel. Who’s going to build a new hotel when the currently operating ones are having problems getting staff?

She said about 15 people attended the roundtable with Rathgeber. The chamber will explore the idea of having another roundtable, this one on the related topic of immigration, with St. Albert’s MLAs.

Rathgeber is planning on writing a letter to Employment Minister Jason Kenney as well as raise the salient points in person if he has the opportunity to do so this summer.


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