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Gerard Curran, middle, owner of the James Joyce pub in Calgary, goes over the menu to newly employed foreign workers: Left to right, Josephine Oropesa from the Philippines, Johanna Murphy from Ireland, Orla Leamy from Ireland and Alfrie Sanchez from the Philippines. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
Gerard Curran, middle, owner of the James Joyce pub in Calgary, goes over the menu to newly employed foreign workers: Left to right, Josephine Oropesa from the Philippines, Johanna Murphy from Ireland, Orla Leamy from Ireland and Alfrie Sanchez from the Philippines. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Business’s cross-Canada lament: We need foreign workers Add to ...

Straddling the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary, the fast-growing city of Lloydminster is surrounded by heavy-oil reserves. Oil field servicing jobs or work at the Husky upgrader is plentiful. Three hotels are under construction, as well as a mall and restaurants.

But business owner and Lloydminster Mayor Jeff Mulligan said the city’s expansion plans would be diminished without temporary foreign workers – accounting for up to one in 10 Lloydminster residents – and that the federal government’s move this week to tighten rules in bringing them is an overreaction that will hurt the local hospitality and food services sectors. “It would create a critical circumstance if we didn’t have access to the temporary foreign worker program in this city.”

The story is the same across much of Alberta, where small and mid-sized businesses – already struggling to compete with the province’s oil and gas sector for workers – say the more rigid new rules will make it harder to bring temporary foreign workers to their province. That’s a big problem for the province, which has a disproportionate share of foreign workers.

Elsewhere in Canada, though, tighter rules for the worker program drew a range of responses, with some employers concerned that delays borne of new requirements will hamper business opportunities, while others said it won’t hurt their operations.

There is a common refrain among businesses across Canada that Ottawa’s move to require foreign workers to be paid market wages will not be a significant hindrance – but that the new rule that firms produce a plan to transition to a fully Canadian work force could be a problem.

The government reversed course on its expanded temporary worker program on Monday, announcing it will suspend the accelerated labour market opinion – which had sped up the process of bringing in workers –crack down on abuses, add a fee and end the 15-per-cent wage rule, which allowed employers to pay foreign workers less than the average under some circumstances.

The program had been expanded, with nearly half a million foreign workers coming to Canada in 2011, more than double the levels of a decade earlier. Employers say its use is essential to fill positions Canadians can’t or won’t do, while some economists and labour groups say it has displaced some Canadian workers, hurt wage growth and dampened efforts to train workers.

The reforms, which came after a public outcry over the program’s rapid growth, could make it trickier for some employers to fill positions, particularly outside of city centres. Frank Rizzardo, president and general manager of Merritt, B.C.-based Emcon Services, is one of them.

He advertised for Canadian workers for almost a year for his paving and bridge construction firm, to no avail. Retention is tough because higher-paying positions in the energy sector lure away staff. Eventually, he brought some workers to Canada from South Korea and paid them the same rate as his Canadian workers.

“The workers we need in Canada exist, they just don’t happen to exist where we do business,” said Mr. Rizzardo, who now has unfilled positions in technicians, superintendents and mechanics. As a result of these changes, “some work won’t get done, and we’ll have to give up on some contracts. We can’t bid on work with no staff.”

In Vancouver, Kevin Clarke, chief executive officer of Catalyst Paper Corp., is less worried, saying he is not particularly concerned with the new provisions that require companies that rely on temporary foreign workers to have a firm plan in place to shift to Canadian employees over time.

Companies need to be able to act quickly to fill crucial gaps when they open up, he said, but there is no problem with shifting to a plan involving domestic workers over the longer term. “If you have an emergency, you call in the fire department. But [then] you do fire prevention after the fire.”

Mr. Clarke is himself a foreign worker, an American who was hired by Catalyst when the company couldn’t find a qualified Canadian CEO after a lengthy search. He said he got his work permit about a month after he accepted the job.

In Waterloo, Ont., Brian Doody, CEO of electronics firm Teledyne Dalsa Inc., said he is concerned about the cumulative regulatory burden they will add to some companies, rather than any individual change.

But in Alberta, the economic stakes are higher. Gerard Curran, the owner of the venerable James Joyce pub in Calgary’s downtown pedestrian mall, said he had no choice but to turn to foreign workers to fill his roster of cooks, dishwashers and servers. “I couldn’t get anybody in the door and I was spending close to $2,000 a week on advertising,” Mr. Curran said.

Now Mr. Curran employs staff from the Philippines, Thailand and Ireland – including an Irish bartender. They earn the same wages as Canadian staff. “It has helped keep my doors open.”

With files from reporter Bertrand Marotte in Montreal

A SNAPSHOT OF BUSINESS NEEDS

Bombardier Inc.’s aerospace division, Montreal

Use: In cases where the company can’t find a qualified Canadian, generally in engineering.

Impact: Slight. Only about 400 foreign temporary employees out of a Canadian work force of 20,800.

Quote: “We’re glad that the government allows us to do that.” – Haley Dunne, Bombardier Aerospace spokeswoman.

House of Kabob, Calgary, Iranian-Mediterranean restaurant

Use: Employs two temporary foreign workers, including a cook and a supervisor, out of a total of seven staff.

Impact: Owner Massoud Rahnema is worried that his plans to bring three new temporary workers to Canada to help open a new location will be too difficult.

Quote: “I’m thinking twice. To expand a business, you really need people.” – Mr. Rahnema

Manac Inc., St-Georges, Que., manufacturer of semi-trailers

Use: Has about 15 welders – mostly from Costa Rica – working weekends.

Impact: Minimal impact as the company uses the program sparingly and does not avail itself of the measure allowing for wages 15 per cent below average pay.

Quote: “Given our demography and low birth rate, the program needs to continue. It’s helpful and well-used by the majority of companies where foreign workers are needed. With some restrictions added, it’s normal that delays and costs will increase.” – president Charles Dutil.

Naanolicious, Edmonton, Indian-food restaurant

Use: Employs five temporary foreign workers, including cooks and a food service supervisor.

Impact: Owner Monika Lavelle is worried that the changes will make it more difficult to bring in more foreign workers and she will have a difficult time staffing for the busy summer period, or will miss out on other opportunities to expand her Indian-food fusion restaurant.

Quote: “How can we ever expand our businesses or grow our businesses?” – Ms. Lavelle

Suncor Energy Inc., Calgary

Use: Uses the Temporary Foreign Worker program to fill gaps in skilled trades such as pipe fitters, welders and boiler makers.

Impact: Low. Company does not take advantage of the 15-per-cent rule.

Quote: “We are supportive of any efficiencies that can be achieved by the government to strengthen the processing of permits.” – spokeswoman SnehSeetal.

Trimac Transportation Inc., Calgary, trucking firm

Use: Has about 50 temporary drivers, mechanics and welders, mostly from Jamaica, out of about 1,550 total.

Impact: Minor, as the company pays the same rate as other drivers get. There could be some delays in hiring because of new requirements.

Quote: “We go to great lengths to exhaust all opportunities in Canada … to fill the vacancies with Canadian drivers first. The foreign-worker option is certainly not preferable to us, but it is necessary.” – Les Rozander, director of retention and recruitment

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