B.C. Chamber condemns changes to foreign worker program

Businesses cannot afford to have empty spaces, so those workers are needed

Jay Sekhon, who operates the Subway on 224th Street in Maple Ridge, hasn’t yet had to hire any temporary foreign workers. So far, he has only one foreign student working an allowable number of hours, while the rest of the seven or eight on staff are Canadian.

“My first priority is local people first,” he says.

While several long-time staff work at his shop, there could come a time when he would need temporary foreign workers.

“Sometimes we don’t have skilled workers here.”

The federal government’s temporary foreign worker program has been under scrutiny for the past year, after it was revealed Chinese miners were being hired for a coal mine in northern B.C.

Following an increase in the number of temporary foreign workers, the federal government said this week it would now require companies to pay the workers the same wages as Canadians, require them to have plans in place to hire Canadians, introduce processing fees and ensure French or English are the only languages that can be used as job requirements.

Previously, employers could pay up to 15-per-cent less than prevailing wages for an occupation if they were using foreign workers.

The B.C. Chamber of Commerce strongly opposes those changes.

“These changes will hit many B.C. businesses hard­­ – especially small businesses,” said John Winter, the B.C. Chamber president.

Businesses, including highly skilled workers in construction to digital industries to tourism and hospitality industries, rely heavily on the temporary foreign worker program to hire skillsets that aren’t available locally, he said.

He added that the B.C. Chamber supports efforts to help Canadians fill Canadian jobs and that there are concerns with a few unscrupulous employers.

However, the proposed changes to the program will have serious fallout.

“Many of the small B.C. businesses that rely on this program don’t have the deep pockets to weather new costs and can’t afford to have empty positions with no workers available to fill them,” he said.

The B.C. Chamber previously told the government to fix the program by enforcing their own regulations and dealing with a small minority of problem employers, rather than changing the program. It also added that businesses are forced to hire foreign workers because of a lack of labour.

The B.C. Chamber didn’t know how many temporary foreign workers were in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, nor did the local chamber.

Krista Pitcher, with Global Coffee Inc. in Maple Meadows Business Park, said her business hasn’t considered hiring foreign workers because it wants employees to stay with the company.

It recently participated in the Get Youth Working Program offered by Bowman Employment Services out of WorkBC employment centre and hired a 22-year-old who’s now their customer service rep.

The program provides businesses wage subsidies for a few months to help with the costs of training new employees.

“We’d be a part of that program again in a heart beat,” she said. “It gives business like ours an incentive to hire youth who may not be that skilled.”

Pitcher said the business gets enough applicants when it posts a job opening. “It’s a lack of qualified responses … is what we struggle with sometimes.”

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