After years of struggling to retain full-time staff, Jimmy Salha resorted to hiring two foreign workers.
It was the first time the owner of Joey’s Seafood Restaurant had accessed Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Salha had always hired Canadians, but in recent months many of these employees haven’t shown up for work, showed a lack of commitment, or wanted to change to part-time schedules.
“The problem is not the pay but they always have excuses,” he said. “They would stay for a few months and then they tell me they can’t come in … I can’t just stop my business to accommodate (their) schedule.”
Salha considers himself lucky as his approval for the two foreign employees came just two weeks before federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney announced an immediate moratorium on the fast-food industry’s access to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
That means any new or pending applications, and any unfilled positions tied to previous approval, will be suspended.
The decision follows concerns over an investigation into some employers abusing the program by giving foreign workers priority work status or more hours than their Canadian peers.
The news has also left members of the local chamber of commerce, Parliament and business community wondering who’ll pay the price.
Many local restaurants rely on temporary foreign workers to supply sufficient staff for their operations, said Paul Quantz, chair of the St. Albert and District Chamber of Commerce.
He’s now worried that the government may expand the suspension to other sectors in the economy.
“The current broad sweeping changes … will have a detrimental effect to the local fast food establishments and possibly other establishments that may be affected in the future by a trend that the government has of changing that program,” Quantz said.
Earlier this week, local member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber said he has already been contacted by local restaurateurs regarding serious concerns about how this decision will affect their businesses.
He said many employers are advertising their jobs to Canadians first only to endure applicants who didn’t show up for an interview or wouldn’t return phone calls.
He also stressed that temporary foreign workers are a reality for hundreds of small businesses in Alberta, where unemployment is less than five per cent, he said.
“They simply cannot keep their restaurants open, especially those who offer extended hours,” he said.
Fault with immigration system
Instead of disallowing some workers to enter the country, the government should make it easier for people to immigrate more permanently, said Richard Truscott, director of Alberta provincial affairs with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).
This would not only address the shortage of labour in many Canadian provinces but also look after issues of abuse, he said.
If the government simply continues its suspension of the program, some businesses may have to close entirely, he said.
“We could see 2006 again, where we had a hot economy, a tight labour market and employers didn’t have access to the temporary foreign worker program as a last resort,” he said. “(They) would have to reduce operations or may not be able to function at all.”
Truscott added that many Alberta businesses are not able to hire Canadians because they’re competing with the oil and gas industry. Smaller businesses also lack the profit margins to increase their pay and attract more local workers without putting themselves out of business, he said.
And foreign workers are far from cheap.
Salha, of Joey’s Seafood Restaurant, said every new employee he hires has to be trained, which costs time and money. And foreign workers need to be paid at least as much, if not more, than Canadians, and often come with added travel and living expenses, he said.
While he feels lucky to have hired two foreign workers before the suspension of the program, he also believes that those who broke the rules deserve to face consequences.
“It’s not a good thing but government has to do what they have to do,” he said. “I feel bad for (the other businesses) and I know what they have to go through … but they put themselves into this situation. They should have played by the rules.”