A moratorium on Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program will be lifted at the beginning of June, Westlock-St. Paul MP Brian Storseth says.
He addressed a crowd of business owners and employees about that status of the program at a roundtable discussion at the St. Paul Legion Hall on May 20, listening to concerns and providing updated information to those gathered there about the moratorium that has been in place since April.
“We’re trying to give you guys a little bit of certainty when it comes to what’s being done with the program,” he said. “When the moratorium is lifted, I will go to each of our communities and go through all of the changes that are being made.”
Storseth described the moratorium as a chance for the federal government to look at better ways of enforcing laws, auditing and reviewing the way the program operates — with special attention paid to the service-sector jobs.
A focus of the discussion, and one of the most influencing factors leading to the moratorium was the Labour Market Opinion (LMO) portion of the Temporary Foreign Worker program. Storseth noted that the application process for LMOs coming under scrutiny was the reason the minister thought it important to put a moratorium in place.
“I wanted to push for certainty,” he said. “I said to the minister that these are businessmen and businesswomen, they can’t not know how long this moratorium is going to be in place for, how many of their employees it’s going to affect.”
Storseth added while he has heard 100 per cent support for the program from members of the business community, the support among residents-at-large is closer to 50 per cent.
He emphasized the need for business owners to advocate the program, with one of its biggest obstacles being public opinion outside of the business community.
“In polls, it’s consistently our friends and neighbours that don’t understand this program, and you have to let them know how important it is,” he said.
Storseth described changes that would improve the program, which included increased speed at which LMOs are processed and approved, and a regionalization of the program to fit the different needs of different municipalities and provinces with their own specific employment needs.
Westlock restaurant owner David Truckey — one of a half dozen from Westlock who went to St. Paul for the discussion — said he was happy with a lot of what he heard at the meeting. The coming end to the moratorium is good news, but he’s also happy with the idea of regionalizing the program.
“Obviously what people need in Alberta is not what people need in Ontario or the Maritimes,” he said.
“To put one system in place for the whole country makes it a little difficult to participate in the program.”
Truckey added one of his biggest concerns is the way the moratorium was enforced on an entire industry, rather than on a case-by-case basis for those employers who were abusing the program.
Not least of his concerns is what it means for workers who are affected by the moratorium.
“I think what has never been addressed is a lot of temporary foreign workers have been put in a very difficult situation,” he said.
One of the workers at his restaurant has been put in just such a situation, where the work permit has expired but that worker can’t get a new one — and therefore can’t work — because of the moratorium.
During the question period of the discussion, many in the audience raised concerns.
Brian Jones, a business owner from Smoky Lake, asked if about $8,000 in application fees from a declined application could be applied to future applications.
“It’s a different situation if someone applied and there’s been no decision rendered, compared to someone who already got rejected before the moratorium was in place,” Storseth replied.
Jones suggested the program was shut down before the official announcement was made, as he knows of many other businesses that were declined prior to the moratorium being announced — Storseth said he wouldn’t speculate on the topic.
Bonnyville mayor Gene Sobolewski asked whether there are specific concerns from the public about any aspect of the program, or whether public opposition is based on ignorance.
“A lot of it came about from …high-profile cases of abuse,” Storseth said. “It’s easier to show a seven-second clip on why it’s bad, and harder to take 10 minutes explaining the importance of the program.”
Another guest said, “We heard talk of an increased application fee for hiring workers, it was thrown out there, is there any information on that?”
Storseth also noted an application-free increase is being considered, but said he was concerned it could get expensive in this riding, where businesses are dependent on foreign workers. The application fee, however, has caused more businesses to be discerning in their use of the program.
“Employers around the country were aggressively pursuing the program when there was zero cost,” he said. “Since implementing a $275 fee, we’ve had 40 per cent fewer applications.”
Some in attendance expressed concern that temporary foreign workers are often described as unskilled, which isn’t necessarily the case — they’re skilled in whatever service they’re providing.
“They’re skilled in their own way, and if it wasn’t for them, the people from CNRL and all the oil companies wouldn’t be getting a cup of coffee and a Big Mac when they come through,” said Megan Land, the owner-operator of McDonald’s in Cold Lake.
“I have letters from people in our community, positive letters saying they contribute to our community,” she added. “Maybe you can help us get those stories out there too. We can’t attract negativity to us as businesspeople.”
Storseth reaffirmed it’s the business community that needs to advocate for the program.
“One thing I have noticed is the more temporary foreign workers there are in our communities, and the longer they’re here, the better the numbers are coming back from the poll,” he said. “One of the best things about this moratorium is that it scared people with what could happen and what the public perception is nationally.”