Watch above: Shorter hours, longer lines and frustration all around: that’s the picture being painted by a St. Albert fast-food franchisee, in light of Canada’s changes to the temporary foreign worker program. Vinesh Pratap reports.
EDMONTON – Could changes to Canada’s temporary foreign worker program mean long lines, reduced hours and even store closures at Alberta businesses?
That’s what a St. Albert McDonald’s franchisee says.
Rob Chiasson owns four of the fast-food chain’s restaurants. He went public in his fight against the tighter rules on hiring TFWs with a speech at the St. Albert Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.
“We have a significant labour shortage in Alberta – it’s undeniable,” Chiasson said. “I know that there’s lots of different opinions on it, but all the numbers demonstrate we have a shortage.”
He would like to see TFW changes reflect regional differences.
In June, the federal government announced changes to the TFW program. It said the aim is to reduce the number of foreign workers and ensure they’re used as a “last, limited resort” so “Canadians always come first.”
Employers are now restricted to using no more than 30 per cent TFWs on any worksite. In 2016, that drops to 10 per cent.
In places with high unemployment, employers aren’t allowed to apply for TFWs in the lowest wage and skill groups in the accommodation, food service and retail sectors.
Chiasson bought the business in 2011 and, from day one, has been “significantly short workers.”
“From day one, we began advertising right across Canada for all levels of jobs.
“Whether it’s part-time staff, full-time staff, maintenance, management, we advertise for all of them, and we continue to do that, because we continue to operate short.”
Chiasson says TFWs don’t take jobs from Canadians. And he warns that the program changes will make it extremely difficult to find restaurant workers – most of whom make minimum wage – in Alberta’s tight labour market.
“I have absolutely no sympathy for this guy or for other employers in his situation,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
“They’re asking for the federal government to intervene in Canada’s labour market to give them easy access to exploitable workers, and we’ve seen what happens when employers have access to those workers.”
McGowan says the federal government did the right thing by imposing more restrictions. “We think – if anything – the federal government should go further,” he added.
“When they say they just can’t find Canadians, what’s really happening is that they can’t find Canadians to work for the crappy wages they’re offering.”
Chiasson says the suggestion that the fast-food industry has used the TFW program to suppress wages is “simply not true.”
“When I talk to business owners – and I’m talking hoteliers who are hiring at $16/hour or folks in the construction business that are hiring at $20/hour – they have just as much trouble staffing… as we do,” said Chiasson.
“The resource sector is also looking for people, they’re also short staff, and they pay $70, $90. If it was wages, why are they having a problem?”
“This is not a wage issue. This is a worker issue.”
Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney doesn’t agree with Chiasson and made that clear on Twitter Wednesday.
“This claim that TFW reforms will “do irreparable damage” to AB’s economy is ridiculous,” he wrote. “When fully implemented in 2016, the TFW reforms will bar the admission of about 8,000 low-paid TFWs in Alberta, relative to last year’s admissions.
“This is the equivalent of 0.3 per cent of Alberta’s labour force of 2.4 million people, which is growing by 100,000 per year,” Kenney tweeted.
“There are 110,000 Albertans looking for work, and Alberta’s population is growing by 135,000 people a year.
“There are also still too many people capable of working who are not in the labour force,” Kenney added.
“If there is a shortage of labour, that should obviously be reflected in higher prices for labour, i.e. wages. But in the AB food services sector, wages have gone up by only 1 per cent a year over past 8 years, versus 2 per cent for inflation 3 per cent for all jobs in Alberta.
“So the sector that has become most dependent on TFWs, i.e. food services, has seen wages raise 1/3 as much as in the overall economy.”
“Respectfully,” said Chiasson, “I would suggest that Minister Kenney needs to come spend some time with me. I’ll be glad to walk him through what it’s like a day in the life of a business person when they’re short people.”
Lynda Moffat, president of the St. Albert Chamber of Commerce, hopes Ottawa will hear the concerns of the local business community.
“They advertise for Canadian workers all the time – they’re required to advertise for Canadian workers first – they even go province to province some of them, trying to find Canadian workers to fill these positions and nobody wants them. Nobody will work for those kinds of jobs.”
Moffat says most businesses can’t compete with the pay offered by oil companies.
“Something severe and negative is going to happen here in Alberta if we can’t have some things changed.”