Whistler businesses struggle to stay afloat a year after TFW changes

Despite changes to severely flawed program, temporary foreign worker process remains broken: economist

Val Litwin, CEO of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce: many small businesses in Whistler have curtailed their hours because of a labour shortage, and some have closed | Submitted

Whistler just had one of its busiest tourist seasons, but business owners aren’t smiling. 

Some have closed entirely, and many others have reduced their business hours. Employers say worker shortages have been constant ever since restrictions to Canada’s controversial temporary foreign worker program (TFWP) cut off a labour stream many of them had come to rely on.

Rick Hale, owner of Avalanche Pizza, opened a new location earlier this year, but he had to close his first location because he couldn’t find enough staff. He hasn’t taken a day off since February. 

“I’m expanding, but I’m having difficulties keeping up,” he said.

Hale employs 12 people now but wants to hire eight more. He believes he pays more than a similar restaurant would pay in Vancouver, especially including tips.

It’s a problem that’s widespread across the ski resort, said Whistler Chamber of Commerce CEO Val Litwin. Before the restrictions came into place, temporary foreign workers represented 2.5% of the ski resort's 12,500 peak-season workers, Litwin said.

The federal government introduced the restrictions in June 2014 after a series of media stories detailed abuses of the program, including by restaurant owners. Examples included allegations of employers withholding wages from temporary foreign workers and disregarding applications from qualified Canadians. 

The new rules, which were targeted at low-skilled jobs, included a cap on the number of temporary foreign workers, a steep increase in the application fee and more onerous requirements for employers to show they had looked for and failed to find qualified Canadian applicants.

It’s also become much harder to hire temporary foreign workers in regions where the unemployment rate is at least 6%, which disqualifies most of B.C.

The restrictions make sense but haven’t been implemented properly, said Dominique Gross, a professor of economics at Simon Fraser University. In May 2014, Gross published a study showing that a huge increase in the use of the TFWP between 2007 and 2010 likely contributed to a significant rise in the unemployment rate in B.C. and Alberta.

Gross noted that similar programs have existed in many European countries since the 1960s to fill severe labour shortages. But over time, those countries have developed detailed data on which occupations and communities have low unemployment rates. Canada still has no way to verify employers’ claims of labour shortages. Without that data, Gross said, Canada’s program won’t work. 

In her study, Gross detailed how a series of changes to the TFWP between 2002 and 2011 made it much easier for employers to bring in low-skilled temporary foreign workers. If those workers lost their jobs, they could be sent back home, leading to what critics claimed increased the risk of exploitation.

Gross said the TFWP also didn’t give employers any incentives to hire and train inexperienced employees. Instead, it gave employers a steady stream of people from developing countries who were willing to work hard for comparatively high wages and an uncertain chance to stay in Canada.

“They have to train workers if there is nobody,” Gross said, “or they have to raise the wage to make it more interesting and then people will train themselves because they’ll say this is a good job.”

B.C.’s agriculture sector also relies on temporary foreign workers, but farmers have not been as hard hit by the changes because the seasonal worker category was not affected by the June 2014 changes. Those workers usually come for between two and four months to help bring in the harvest.

But greenhouse growers use the TFWP for workers who come for eight to nine months, and those businesses have faced delays and found it more difficult to get approval, said Linda Delli Santi, executive director of the BC Greenhouse Growers’ Association.

Similar to TFWP users, B.C. farmers received negative publicity after media investigations uncovered several cases of poor housing and dangerous working conditions. But Rhonda Driediger, owner of Driediger Farms in Langley, hopes those days are behind the agriculture industry after the government strengthened enforcement and inspections.

“Say if I as an employer had an issue and there was a complaint from my employees,” Driediger explained, “I’d be called up for an integrity review before they’d give me employees again.

“That got instituted a few years ago, and we love it, because I don’t want any more bad news stories.”

Unions still oppose the use of the seasonal worker program, which B.C. farmers have had access to since 2004. But Delli Santi and Driediger say it’s the only way farmers can find the labour they need for seasonal work:  it’s not uncommon to get fewer than 20 applications from Canadian residents for 200 job openings, Delli Santi said.

The seasonal nature of work in Whistler is also what makes it hard to find workers, Litwin said. While the town has transitioned to be an all-season resort in the past few years, there are still shoulder seasons – October to November and late March to early May – when businesses are likely to lay off workers.

The chamber is focusing on offering top-notch customer service training to its members, 90% of which are small businesses. It’s also encouraging businesses to make sure they have an attractive workplace culture.

“Whereas they used to look at competitive [wages] and flexibility in scheduling, businesses now have to look top to bottom in terms of their strategy to attract and retain,” Litwin said.

“What other things are being done to develop those team members while they’re here? Certainly that’s an expectation of Millennials.”

Those efforts have yet to help business owners like Hale, who is also seeing competition from events like the mountain biking festival Crankworx that are drawing more visitors to Whistler. His remaining workers will often accept temporary work at the events, leaving him even more short-staffed.