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Federal government suspends foreign worker program

Apr 29, 2014 12:45 pm | By Mike Pickford | St. Paul Journal

With news breaking last week that the federal government had officially suspended its temporary foreign worker program for businesses in the restaurant industry, concerned residents and business owners in the Lakeland spoke of the potentially “crippling” effects the suspension could have on the region moving forward.

After months of controversy, Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney announced an immediate moratorium on the fast-food industry’s access to the program last Thursday, stating “serious concerns” remain following a government investigation earlier this year.

“I am announcing an immediate moratorium on the food services sector’s access to the temporary foreign worker program,” Kenney said in a short statement last week. “This moratorium will remain in effect until the completion of the ongoing review of the temporary foreign worker program.”

Kenney suggested his ministry will not process any new or pending applications for temporary foreign workers from restaurant owners, and that any unfilled positions tied to previous approval will also be suspended. Actively employed temporary foreign workers will not be immediately affected by the suspension.

The move comes after months of back and forth between both provincial and federal lobbyist groups and those involved in the restaurant industry, with concerns centering on the fact that businesses are abusing the program.

Late last month, it was revealed that McDonald’s franchises in B.C. had had their Labour Market Opinions (LMO) revoked after allegations that they were exploiting workers hired under the program.

Staff at the St. Paul McDonald’s would not comment on the potential local effects of the suspension of the program and other fast food restaurants in St. Paul also refused comment on the issue.

Executive Director of the Bonnyville and District Chamber of Commerce Tanya Oliver thinks it’s unfair that the federal government has decided to suspend the program and predicts a “sticky” future for those businesses in the local region that rely on temporary foreign workers.

“This decision is completely crippling for our service industry here in Bonnyville and Cold Lake – it’s just outrageous,” Oliver said. “I’m just completely appalled that the federal government has come out with a decision like this – if any industry needs this temporary foreign worker program it’s the restaurant industry. It just totally blows my mind that this decision has been made.”

Oliver said a large percentage of those employed in the local food service sector are temporary foreign workers, and admitted that services in the local region would take a “big hit” unless a timely resolution is found.

“If this (continues) we won’t have the services everyone in the community has come to expect available to us anymore,” Oliver said.

Local businessman Sal Naim, who owns and operates both Mr. Mike’s Steakhouse Casual and Player’s Lounge in Bonnyville, said that while he wasn’t necessarily surprised to see the federal government took action against the program, he was taken aback upon learning of the severity of those actions.

“I’ll be honest with you, I can’t say I was surprised when I heard (of the suspension of the temporary foreign worker program),” Naim said when speaking to the Bonnyville Nouvelle last week. “I felt something like this was going to happen. What I didn’t expect was for it to happen in this fashion, in such an abrupt way.”

Naim noted that those involved in the food service industry, especially those operating out of northeastern Alberta, desperately need the temporary foreign workers program just to be able to keep their businesses alive.

“To me, employers in the restaurant business are in a critical condition and we really need the assistance provided to us by emergency programs to help alleviate some of the key issues we’re experiencing, particularly with regards to employment,” Naim said. “I think it’s completely unfair that the federal government has come to such a rash decision, and the consequences that may come (as a result of the decision) could be severe.”

With the majority of those against the program pointing to rising unemployment rates in eastern Canada, Naim believes the government should be looking at a more “regional” approach when it comes to tackling the issue.

“Our argument has always been that this is a regional issue as opposed to a national one,” Naim said. “You cannot paint Alberta with the same brush as Ontario and (eastern Canada) because we’re not the same.”

He added, “My hope is that the government conducts a quick and thorough review, reinstates the program and punishes those found to be abusing it. Whether or not that happens though? We’ll have to wait and see.”

Comments released by Restaurants Canada seemed to support the claims made by Oliver and Naim that the suspension could potentially lead to a decrease in service quality, and in some cases business closure.

“In areas of the country with severe labour shortages, the temporary foreign worker program is vital in allowing restaurants to remain in business,” the group said in a statement released on Friday. “Albertans in particular will remember what it was like a few years ago to find restaurants closed because of a shortage of workers.”

Alberta Minister of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour Thomas Lukaszuk said that while he understands why the federal government is taking a closer look at the program, he feels the moratorium imposed by Kenney was premature.

“Alberta’s economy is strong, and our labour market is unique,” Lukaszuk said. “(We) feel it is unfair to freeze an entire sector because there are problems with a few players. We encourage the federal government to clarify the timelines of its review, so that Albertans can continue to get the food services they need.”

Local MP for Westlock – St. Paul Brian Storseth was unable to provide any comments by the Journal’s press deadline.

With the future of the program left in limbo, Naim said he’d like to see discussions take place in the near future as a way of coming up with an acceptable solution for all parties.

“As a business owner, I would love to have the government, unions, representatives from the business sector – basically anybody involved with or affected by (this suspension) sit down and discuss this issue in a civil, constructive way to address all the issues and problems surrounding the program,” Naim said.

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