By MIKE YOUDS
Suspension of the temporary foreign workers program for restaurants is causing havoc for some small businesses in the Interior and could harm tourism overall as the summer peak arrives.
There are roughly 74,000 foreign workers in B.C. who are registered with the federal program. About 400 of those work in the Kamloops area, particularly in the fast-food sector.
Last week, federal Employment and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced suspension of the controversial program in the restaurant trade. The suspension is a direct response to allegations of abuse of the program by some McDonald’s franchises on Vancouver Island.
Kenney has not said how long the suspension might last. The uncertainty is as worrying as the suspension itself for some restaurant operations.
The hospitality sector is hoping that the federal government will punish the abusers but reinstate the program for those who have followed the rules, said Bryce Herman, a consultant in the trade and Kamloops chairman of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association. Otherwise, the moratorium will have a serious effect at the height of the critically important summer season.
“Many are expecting to hire foreign workers for the up-season that’s coming,” Herman said.
A local A&W manager who spoke highly of the program last year instead referred the A.M. News to A&W’s corporate communications office in Eastern Canada.
A&W franchises in the city are among a handful of Kamloops businesses that have taken advantage of the program to fill shifts after they were unable to do so by hiring locally. That same dilemma – not enough Canadian recruits — forced restaurants in Alberta to close their doors a few years ago, a situation that the temporary foreign workers program had gone some distance in overcoming.
Although one local worker stepped forward last year to complain about the program, there did not seem to be widespread concern about losing job opportunities to nonresidents.
Herman said the industry’s concern relates to the old expression, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” When tourists arrive, businesses have to be in their best form or risk the loss of repeat business and negative reviews. The same applies to the whole tourism sector, which can be undermined by negative experiences at the front end.
“It’s going to be a reflection on every one of us,” Herman said. “You need to make sure the product is first-rate and meets the demands of the international travelling product.”
Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to staff shortages, since they can face a conundrum of either operating with insufficient staffing and delivering less than optimal service that undermines their reputation, or shuttering their operations with a consequent loss of revenue.
The NDP opposition says the program seems flawed and doesn’t appear to be meeting its mandate of addressing regional shortages of skilled workers. Leader Tom Mulcair tabled a motion in the House of Commons on Tuesday calling for an investigation.
Participation in the program has ballooned over the past decade, from about 100,000 workers in 2002 to 338,000 in 2012.
A B.C. tourism industry study predicted labour shortages by 2014. Sun Peaks Resort has already felt the impact of those shortages. The Thompson-Okanagan region in particular suffers from what one industry specialist described as “severe seasonality,” preventing tourism operators from retaining workers on a permanent basis.