British Columbia, worried it will face a labour crunch should its energy sector take off, is pressing the federal government to keep the doors open for temporary foreign workers, arguing major industrial projects will blow through their budgets if outside labour is not available.
Rich Coleman, B.C.'s deputy premier and natural gas development minister, on Wednesday said Canada will "fail" if companies cannot hire foreign workers to fill holes in the labour force. B.C. is concerned about the TFW program because it believes the province will need 100,000 people to fill jobs created as companies develop liquefied natural gas export projects on the coast. Without temporary workers, Mr. Coleman says, projects will run over budget and companies will be skittish. Canadian politicians, he said, must work together on this policy file.
"You need to engage other governments. You need to put together a national strategy," Mr. Coleman told a Calgary audience. "We want a very aggressive, very optimistic, high-skilled labour strategy in Canada to allow for foreign workers to come into this country."
His demands come as the federal Conservatives consider axing the TFW program for low-wage jobs by 2016. The TFW program is a political hot potato in Canada, with opponents alleging employers abuse the plan by hiring outsiders at lower wages or using it as a backdoor to bring relatives here. Proponents argue the system is necessary because there are not enough Canadians with the talent to fill highly-skilled jobs, or the desire to fill low-end jobs. The majority of TFWs in Canada are employed in Alberta, followed by Ontario, and then B.C.
There are 15 liquefied natural gas export projects under consideration in B.C., and while only a few of these will proceed, thousands of people will be employed because of the activity. Mr. Coleman said if companies are unable to hire TFWs, investors will fret over budgets. Construction costs for just three or four LNG projects could reach $100-billion, he said.
"We need to know that it is good to invite people to our country to work, to immigrate, and to bring their skills, because otherwise [the] country will fail," he said at the Energy Council of Canada's 2014 Canadian Energy Summit and World Energy Council North America Region Energy Forum.
"We always have to remember my ancestors, your ancestors, came here as immigrants - came here with skills to help build the country," he told reporters afterward.
The LNG export industry is focused on northwestern British Columbia, and could turn Kitimat into a boomtown. This means demand for highly-skilled jobs, such as engineers, will grow, and so too will demand for jobs requiring few skills, such as fast-food cashiers.
Alberta is particularly concerned about changes to the TFW program, given how the oil and gas sector has heated up the province's economy. Ken Kobly, president and chief executive of the Alberta Chambers of Commerce, is worried about the program being trimmed and increasing fees for companies using the program.
In Alberta, the temporary foreign worker is about the survival of businesses that can't afford energy sector wages, he said.
"I don't really think the government gets it."
Andrew Leach, a professor of energy policy at the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta, notes labour within Canada does not move freely. Highly-skilled engineers, for example, may move, but likely have support from their employers. The same support system does not apply to low-skill jobs, like kitchen workers in camps.
"You don't move for a buck," he said.
With files from Kelly Cryderman