Many of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) will be forced to leave the country on April 1 when a new federal rule comes into effect limiting them to four consecutive years in Canada. That would have dealt a blow to the local economy, which has sat at full employment since September, local businesses told Alaska Highway News.
Because of that, the B.C. Provincial Nominee Program Northeast Pilot Project, which allows businesses to sponsor and retain staff who have applied for permanent residence, has been extended through March 31, 2016.
The program had been slated to expire today, meaning any TFW who had started working on or before April 1, 2011 would have been forced to leave Canada by tomorrow.
The program became a national issue after it was revealed employers in other parts of the county had fired Canadian workers in favour of TFWs.
After this was brought to light in 2013, the federal government announced changes to the program.
Employers used to be able to renew work permits an unlimited number of times, which essentially allowed them to keep temporary foreign workers indefinitely. After the changes, that is no longer the case. Now temporary foreign workers are only allowed to work in Canada for four consecutive years.
The new rule applies to all TFWs who started working in Canada from 2011, meaning that April 1, 2015 is the first deadline for workers to exit the country under the new rule.
That would have been a major problem for employers in Northeast B.C., because of a general shortage of labour.
Ross Bannerman, who owns Canadian Tire in Fort St. John, was able to get around the federal requirements by virtue of his store’s location.
Under the B.C. Provincial Nominee Program Northeast Pilot Project, employers can put forward names of employees to become provincial nominees for permanent residence. Workers are then permitted to continue working while the application is being considered.
That's a lifeline local businesses say they desperately need.
By making employees who would have been forced to leave Canada nominees for permanent residence, Bannerman has been able to maintain his staff. In other parts of B.C., where the pilot program does not exist, some would have had to leave by April 1.
The program is something he “hugely applauds.”
“In an area like Fort St. John, we always struggle to find the workers we need to properly staff our store,” he said. “The ability to hire and bring in temporary foreign
workers allows us to top up and at least get us close to where we need to be for employment … we’re hiring [Canadian workers] every day, but it allows us to compliment that.”
Bannerman’s store has helped nine people go through the provincial nominee process to qualify for permanent residency.
Peace River North MLA Pat Pimm did not have an exact number of how many people have gone through the program in total, but he said it was “around the 100 mark.”
Pimm wants to make the pilot program permanent.
He said “safeguards” are built into the system to prevent abuse if the Northeast's labour situation were to change and unemployment were to rise, including federal restrictions that limit the number of temporary foreign workers a business is allowed to employ.
The TFW program has its fair share of detractors.
A C.D. Howe Institute report criticized changes to the temporary foreign worker program between 2002 and 2012. One of their concerns was that the federal program helped keep wages low. This should not be the case, they said, and argued for additional fees to "create incentives for employers to raise wages while searching for domestic workers."
Bannerman said he pays his employees starting wages 25 per cent higher than the minimum wage in part because of challenges recruiting and maintaining staff.
“We’re hiring every day,” he said. “Being able to hire the foreign workers we have has never satisfied our need for employees. That hasn’t in any way affected our ability to hire Canadian workers ... we’re doing everything we can to hire Canadian employees.”