Canada’s largest restaurant association is demanding an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper over the month-long moratorium on the foreign worker program, warning that if the ban isn’t lifted, it will hurt the tourist season for events like the Calgary Stampede.
The call from Restaurants Canada comes as the government is putting the finishing touches on major reforms of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program that are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
(What is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program? Read The Globe's easy explanation)
Gerard Curran, owner of Calgary’s James Joyce Irish Pub and board member of Restaurants Canada, said the impact of the ban has been very hard on his staff and his business.
Staff are stretched thin and he has had to shorten his hours of operation.
Mr. Curran said Ottawa needs to lift the moratorium before the coming tourist season.
“We’re going into the tourist season,” he said from Charlottetown, where Canada’s restaurant sector gathered for a board meeting. “This is the worst time to do this moratorium, especially in Calgary with Stampede. We don’t have the staff to man the restaurant the hours that we would like.”
Tourists visiting Alberta will be greeted with long lineups and slower service for everything from meals to a cup of coffee, a situation he warns will ultimately mean less tax revenue for governments.
“I see all this starting to happen in Alberta,” he said. “Don’t come to the restaurant and blame [us]. You should talk to the federal government because they’re the ones who put the moratorium on.”
Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney is agreeing to an emergency meeting.
Alexandra Fortier, a spokesperson for Mr. Kenney, noted the minister met with Restaurants Canada privately and as part of a larger meeting on May 15.
“There remain serious concerns regarding the use of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in the Food Services Sector,” Ms. Fortier said in an e-mail, adding that the moratorium will remain in effect until the completion of a review of the program, which is expected in a few weeks.
“Our government will continue to pursue significant reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to ensure that employers make greater efforts to recruit and train Canadians and that it is only used as a last and limited resort when Canadians are not available,” she said.
The expected reforms are not likely to please employers in low-wage sectors. Mr. Kenney has privately informed employers that he is considering a “wage floor” for foreign workers that would likely require foreign workers to be paid higher than the minimum or even the average wage. Such a move would pressure employers to offer higher wages before turning to the program.
In the private May 15 meeting, Mr. Kenney reminded employers that several studies over the past year have contradicted their claims of major labour shortages in Canada.
Meanwhile NDP and Liberal MPs continue to raise the program daily in Question Period.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau noted that Mr. Kenney recently expressed concern that Canadian wages have barely kept pace with inflation, yet his department approves requests for foreign workers at minimum wage.
“When will the government reverse its wage-suppressing policies and fix its broken program?” he asked the Prime Minister.
Mr. Harper responded by accusing the Liberals of lacking a clear position on the issue.
“One day the Liberals are calling for fewer temporary foreign workers and the next day they are calling for more temporary foreign workers,” the Prime Minister said.