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Thirty thousand companies have applied to the federal temporary foreign worker program in Canada, stretching to almost every corner of the economy. (JASON FRANSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Thirty thousand companies have applied to the federal temporary foreign worker program in Canada, stretching to almost every corner of the economy. (JASON FRANSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The long list of Canadian firms that have sought temporary foreign workers Add to ...

In the airline sector, the use of temporary foreign workers has become a divisive topic. CanJet Airlines used the program to bring in about 30 seasonal foreign pilots this winter. It needs them given the seasonality of its business and the large expense it would incur in training Canadian pilots with experience in smaller aircraft, said Stephen Rowe, president of the Nova Scotia-based firm. It’s hard to find Canadians willing to work a 4.5-month stint and who are qualified, he says, so that if the program were scrapped, “we would really have to look at the business to see if it makes sense,” he said. “And if it didn’t make sense, we’d be out of the charter business. And there are 700 jobs that would be gone with it.”

Rival carrier Sunwing made two applications for temporary foreign pilots last fall, for 60 and 59 pilots, respectively, according to the Air Line Pilots Association, which obtained documents relating to those applications through access to information. That touches a nerve with many pilots who have been out of work, such as Steve Zago, a 14-year veteran. He and about 60 other pilots were laid off at Transat A.T. last October. All of them were qualified airline pilots, he said, so they applied to open positions at both Sunwing and CanJet, but did not get a response.

“When we started losing our jobs, and the vast majority of us, myself included, were all experienced airline pilots applying – and none of us got the call,” Mr. Zago said. “It’s upsetting and very frustrating.”

Montreal-based Transat complained to the federal government that rivals such as Sunwing are using seasonal workers at a much lower cost. Transat says its workforce is Canadian, but could be forced to resort to foreign pilots in the future given the competitive pressure. “Of course, we will adapt our model to the new reality. It’s important for us, for business and competitive reasons,” said spokesman Pierre Tessier.

The blistering debate is making Mr. Rowe, at CanJet, rethink his hiring practices. Next month, he said, he will change the qualifications listed on job postings to ensure Canadian pilots with big-jet operator experience are eligible. “It’s becoming a sensitive issue,” he said.

Some companies on the list say they need to move staff between countries. Deloitte Canada, one of several accounting and consulting firms who use the program, moves employees around its network, a practice that also involves Canadian staff working in other countries. “As part of our mobility culture we do encourage our people from Canada and abroad to experience a variety of professional experiences and to share their professional expertise within our global network,” Deloitte spokeswoman Jeannie Tsang said.

Some business owners are ardent defenders of the practice. Paul Vickers, owner of four restaurants and a casino in Calgary, argues the food service business needs reliable people, regardless of where they come from. “You pay them and they show up for work,” he said of temporary foreign workers. He said he has hired small numbers of workers, mostly from the Philippines, to work as chefs and dishwashers and pays them the same or more as his other workers. He has resorted to the program because of what Mr. Vickers calls a “disturbing trend” in hiring local workers who sometimes don’t show up. “You fire him, and he doesn’t even think of it, he just goes onto the next job,” he said.

The agriculture sector has long relied on foreign workers to meet seasonal demands. Church and State Wines, a B.C. company that runs wineries, has used the program for the past four years, hiring between three and five Mexicans to weed, prune and harvest for a six-month period. “It’s hard physical labour and you’re doing it in the heat of summer,” said Lyndell Curry, the winery’s administration manager.

Workers, typically men in their 30s with families in Mexico, have come back for successive seasons. “We have had repeat employees – it’s a six-month term, they can make a lot of money and go back home,” Ms. Curry said. “For us, it’s $10.25 an hour; for them, that allows them to support a family.”

Not all business owners are fans of the program though. Roxanne Jones, manager of the Toddle Inn Day Care in Strathmore, Alta., just east of Calgary, said she is constantly looking for qualified staff. But after bringing in a temporary foreign worker from the U.S. two years ago who did not work out, and footing the associated extra costs of the program, she wouldn’t do it again, “Unless I had to,” Ms. Jones said, adding the program “is just all kinds of paperwork.”

Are you a temporary foreign worker in Canada? The Globe would like to hear from you - e-mail us at community@globeandmail.com

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