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Mike Buensuceso, right, at his shop, Asian Central, in Whitehorse, Yukon, on Aug. 16, 2013. While Yukon's new temporary foreign worker program will help some small business owners like Buensuceso, others question the need for it in the North. (Ian Stewart for The Globe and Mail)
Mike Buensuceso, right, at his shop, Asian Central, in Whitehorse, Yukon, on Aug. 16, 2013. While Yukon's new temporary foreign worker program will help some small business owners like Buensuceso, others question the need for it in the North. (Ian Stewart for The Globe and Mail)

Temporary Yukon foreign worker program launched after mine layoffs Add to ...

The Yukon government has launched a temporary foreign worker program to meet demand in mining and tourism, just weeks after more than 100 Yukon mine employees lost their jobs.

Prompted by chronic Yukon labour shortages, the new one-year pilot is designed to help local businesses facing seasonal upswings fill short-term positions when Canadian workers are unavailable. And while some small business owners, including members of Yukon’s burgeoning Filipino population, are welcoming the new program, others are questioning it in the face of widespread layoffs.

The federal government took several steps in April aimed at making it harder and less economically attractive to import temporary labour, after revelations that Royal Bank of Canada was outsourcing IT jobs and a B.C. mining company planned to import as many as 200 Chinese workers. But although Ottawa called the measures the biggest changes to the program in a decade, labour groups said they didn’t go far enough.

In Yukon, the government is moving in the opposite direction. Lauding its new foreign worker program as less onerous and more accessible than its federal counterpart, the government is promising applications will be processed within six weeks. That worries some who found themselves out of jobs this year.

“If temporary foreign workers come in, we’re not unionized, so there’s not much we can do about it,” said Percy Risby. The 58-year-old heavy equipment operator from Ross River was one of 100 workers laid off by Yukon Zinc in early July. The Chinese-owned company blames falling metal prices for the cuts. “They said it might only be temporary, but I heard they’re laying more people off in September,” Mr. Risby said.

Judy Thrower, acting assistant deputy minister, Yukon Advanced Education Branch, acknowledges the new foreign worker program has some Yukoners concerned. “After all of the reports of Canadians getting laid off and replaced by foreign workers, we are going to ensure, where appropriate or available, that local or Canadian citizens get the jobs over foreign workers,” she said. “And our program is not as broad as the federal program in that it specifically targets tourism and hospitality, oil and gas, mineral exploration and mining.”

A temporary foreign worker program is only necessary if there’s no labour available, said Yukon Chamber of Mines executive director Mike Kokiw. “But we have the labour,” he said, citing the layoffs at Yukon Zinc and Alexco Resources Corp., which cut 25 per cent of the work force at its Yukon Bellekeno mine in June. “So it’s a little bit misleading for the government to come out and say this new program is all for mining, when really it’s not. It’s more for businesses like Tim Hortons.”

Roughly 75 per cent of Whitehorse Tim Hortons staff are, or were at one point, temporary foreign workers. “Foreign workers are often more mature and have a more diverse work background,” owner Doug Terry said. “So they have a different skill set than some of the kids we hire from high school – though some of these kids have been fantastic too.”

Mr. Terry tries to hire locally and nationally before opting to bring in foreign workers, he said. “But people tend to go after government jobs that pay higher, or into the mining sector.”

Filipino Association of Yukon president Mike Buensuceso, who runs a specialty food store in Whitehorse, faces similar staffing issues. “It’s hard for us to give the best wages, even to give median wages, so it’s hard to compete with bigger employers with better pay and better benefits,” he said. “So I’m contemplating applying for this program so I have peace of mind to know my employee will stay at this job.”

Mr. Buensuceso caters to Yukon’s burgeoning Filipino population, which makes up 2,000 of the territory’s 30,000 residents – an influx spurred by the Yukon Nominee Program. Launched in 2007, the nominee program offers foreign workers an opportunity to become Canadian citizens following a two-year working commitment in the territory. Mr. Buensuceso, however, is opting to take advantage of the new temporary foreign worker program instead. “It offers faster access to short-term employees,” he said.

More employers are choosing the temporary foreign worker program, even though the nominee program is much better for incoming Canadians, said Yukon Federation of Labour president Vikki Quocksister. While Ms. Quocksister appreciates that the new foreign worker program is the first in Canada to partner with a worker’s compensation health and safety board, she still wants to see it scrapped. Yukon has high unemployment, up to 25 per cent in rural areas, she said. “So I don’t think we need more temporary foreign workers, I think we need more Yukoners working.”

The territory is working to train more Yukoners, said Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce president Rick Karp. “But we still need more workers.” Mr. Karp, whose wife owns a local business in Whitehorse, has been pushing for the temporary foreign worker program for years. “I really don’t see any wrinkles in it at all,” he said. “And struggling mining companies like Alexco could benefit from the new program.” Alexco faces exorbitant costs flying in shift workers, Mr. Karp said. “But if it uses temporary foreign workers who fly in once, are there for eight or nine months, then fly home, that’s a much more reasonable line item in the budget.”

It’s exactly this kind of scenario that worries Ms. Quocksister. “I believe in job protection and worker protection,” she said. “And I’m concerned that these new jobs will be far, far underpaid.”

In Ross River, Mr. Risby is waiting by the phone. “Yukon Zinc’s layoff letter said they’d call us back first,” he said. “It’s going to be tough to find work in mining up here, especially with winter coming.”

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