While the restaurant industry is disappointed with Ottawa’s suspension of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program for the food services sector, Canada’s largest private sector union thinks the government hasn’t gone far enough to protect workers and jobs.
“We anticipated changes to the program, but we didn’t anticipate this broad-stroke approach,” said Joyce Reynolds, executive vice-president of government affairs at Restaurants Canada, which represents 30,000 businesses in the sector.
She said her office fielded dozens of calls from “very concerned” restaurateurs across the country Friday, particularly in communities where they say there are severe labour shortages that prevent employers from filling positions in the typically low-paying industry.
Federal employment minister Jason Kenney imposed a surprise ban Thursday on the controversial program for fast food and all other restaurants and bars, just after the C.D. Howe Institute released a scathing report that concluded it had increased unemployment in B.C. and Alberta — two Tory strongholds.
But Reynolds noted some bars and restaurants may have to close without access to the program, which since 2002 has allowed companies to hire temporary foreign workers for jobs they can’t fill with Canadians.
“The majority of restaurant operators using the program operate in complete compliance and it is unfortunate that their businesses and employees will be hurt by this,” she said.
McDonald’s Canada declined comment Friday. On Wednesday, the fast food giant announced it was putting its participation in the program on hold while a third party conducts an audit on its use of the plan. The fast-food giant has been in hot water for hiring temporary foreign workers at some of its Canadian franchises.
Unifor president Jerry Dias, whose union represents 300,000 workers across Canada, called the ban a good start. But he thinks the government should scrap the scandal-plagued program altogether, calling it a legalized way of for employers to pay 15 per cent less in wages while keeping youth unemployment high.
The restaurant industry employs 1.1 million Canadians and is the top source of first-time jobs for young people. Reynolds said the ban on the food services sector is severe given that 2 per cent of the industry’s employees are temporary foreign workers.
Reynolds said the industry is committed to working with the federal government to correct any abuses, restore the integrity of the program and expedite access to it in regions of severe labour shortages where the program is “vital”, such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and northern Quebec.
Alberta’s labour minister said Friday he’s concerned about the freeze. Thomas Lukaszuk says it’s not fair to ban workers in an entire sector simply because there are “problems with a few players.”
He wants Ottawa to clarify the timeline for its review of the program.
Lukaszuk points out that Alberta’s economy is strong and he calls its labour market unique. He says unemployment is below five per cent and employers cannot find people to fill jobs.
- With files from The Canadian Press