The federal government announced a moratorium on any new applications under the Temporary Foreign Worker program (TFW) while a review of the program is being carried, but the City and Weyburn Chamber of Commerce are asking their MP to press to the government that this will cause a severe problem for employers in the food services sector in southeast Saskatchewan.
The Weyburn Chamber organized a conference call with MP Ed Komarnicki on Friday afternoon, as the House of Commons was set to resume sitting on Parliament Hill on Monday after a two-week break.
Gathered in the Chamber's board office for the call were Mayor Debra Button, Reeve Carmen Sterling, Larry Heggs, and restaurant owners Shane Dammann and Larie Semen.
Komarnicki said he talked to Jason Kenney, minister of Employment and Social Development, on Monday, and he will forward the concerns from the Weyburn Chamber in a more formal way as well.
In announcing the moratorium on any new applications in the TFW program, the minister said the moratorium will last until a review of the program has been carried out. "In addition, any unfilled positions tied to a previously approved LMO will be suspended," said Kenney's statement. "Abuse of the Temporary Foreign Worker program will not be tolerated. Allegations of misuse will continue to be investigated and any employer found to have violated the rules will face serious consequences," said Kenney, adding that consequences could include criminal prosecution with sanctions that include fines and jail time.
Komarnicki said he is hopeful the review will be expedited soon and that the moratorium will only last a week.
"I think the chamber and many of its members are concerned about the effect of this moratorium on the program. Obviously there will be changes to it, so there are concerns how that will affect their members and their businesses," said Komarnicki.
He noted there are alleged abuses of the program being investigated, and this is part of the concern for those in the fast food industry.
"As the minister and the prime minister have both said, the program was never intended to replace Canadian workers that might be available to work. My impression is there will be changes; I can understand some of that," said Komarnicki.
Asked if minister Kenney is aware of the labour shortage that continues to exist in southeast Saskatchewan, the MP pointed out the minister has been made aware of this and paid a visit to Weyburn a while ago where business owners and the Chamber all told this to him.
"In our area, including Weyburn, there is a need for that Temporary Foreign Workers program, as those workers have filled that need. At the same time, Canadians who need to work need to have those jobs available," said the MP.
Mayor Button said she and Reeve Sterling were mainly there to listen, and to lend their support for the business community in speaking to the MP about the effect of the program on the community and on some of the businesses.
"They very well articulated that this will have a devastating impact on their businesses," she said, adding, "Weyburn had the lowest unemployment rate across the country at one per cent, and the number of jobs posted for that are more than what's available. I challenge anyone to find a solution."
She noted at one of the businesses, they had two Canadians have applied since January and they did not meet the minimum requirements to be hired.
"These businesses are struggling. This (TFW program) isn't the first step, it's the last step. The employers would much rather hire someone who's living here, rather than getting someone to move in and then they have to find a place for them to live," said Mayor Button.
She noted that over the weekend she attended staff meetings at the restaurants, and heard some heart-breaking stories how foreign workers have been affected.
On the moratorium on the TFW program, Mayor Button said, "I feel this was a knee-jerk reaction from the government. This hits the southeast extremely hard."
She said there may be issues about the program's use that need looking into, but at the same time, they don't need to shut down the program for everybody.
From the foreign workers she's talked to, along with their employers, they have done a very good job in supporting the community and getting to know the community while they're here working.
"The world is coming to Weyburn, and I don't see that as a bad thing," she said, adding she was told about why the workers came and what they've left behind.
"They've brought a lot of good stuff to the community," said the mayor, adding she feels badly about how some foreign workers have been treated of late.
"I hope people will be mindful about what they're saying," said the mayor.
"They are not feeling as welcome as we should be making them. It saddens me a little; that's why I made an effort to attend their staff meetings."
Chamber manager Jeff Richards said they were able to provide some real numbers to Komarnicki about the very real need for the TFW program in the southeast, and in particular in Weyburn. The Weyburn Chamber represents over 200 businesses in the southeast, and feel "the TFW program has been an invaluable tool in creating the growth and opportunities that many people are benefitting from."
He noted with the unemployment rate at one per cent, or less, that means there are maybe 110 people out of work, "and not all of them are necessarily employable. They don't have the people to fill the jobs; that's why they're accessing the program."
Defending the program, Richards said, "The influx of new Canadians into our communities has been what has kept the doors open at many businesses in southeast Saskatchewan. As was the case in Saskatchewan's pioneer years, we are seeing a new era of immigrants who are starting businesses, getting good jobs and building better futures for their families while contributing to the success of Saskatchewan."
As far as alleged abuses of the TFW program, he said, "We are confident that the program has parameters built into it to mitigate the potential for misuse and we encourage the federal government to ensure that all of its programs are not being abused, including employment insurance, temporary foreign workers, or any others."
Referring to minister Kenney's earlier trip to Weyburn to meet business representatives, Richards said the Chamber is requesting that he again come to Weyburn "to witness the labour shortage first-hand."
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