Home / Around Canada / Rocky Mountain employers in Alberta see major boost in temporary foreign worker approvals

Rocky Mountain employers in Alberta see major boost in temporary foreign worker approvals

Faced with a pandemic-induced labour shortage, businesses in Alberta's Rocky Mountain tourist hot spots have been allowed to dramatically boost the number of temporary foreign workers they hire to fill low-wage positions. The easing of hiring limits isn't confined to Alberta but applies across the country.

Ottawa has eased limits across country, especially in food services, accommodation

A McDonald’s restaurant is pictured in Canmore, Alberta.

Faced with a pandemic-induced labour shortage, businesses in the Rocky Mountain tourist hot spots of Banff and Canmore, Alta., have been given the green light to dramatically boost the number of temporary foreign workers they hire to fill low-wage positions.

Last year, businesses in the Bow Valley communities were cleared to fill more positions through the federal Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program than at any point since 2015, the earliest year for which data is available. Under the program, employers in Canada can hire foreign workers to fill temporary jobs when qualified Canadians aren't available.

In Canmore, 237 positions were approved, according to data from Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). That's more than double the 98 positions approved in 2019, the next-highest year on record. In Banff, that number more than tripled to 454 positions, up from 141 in 2019.

This doesn't mean all approved positions were necessarily filled by temporary foreign workers, but experts say the size of both the requests and the approvals is significant.

"[It's] kind of jaw-dropping," said Jason Foster, an associate professor of human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University in Alberta.

"These numbers parallel some of the numbers we saw in the early 2000s, which is when the big temporary foreign worker boom was in Alberta and Canada."

The trend isn't confined to the Bow Valley or even to Alberta. The federal government has temporarily eased limits on how many temporary foreign workers a business can hire in low-wage positions, and employers across Canada have increasingly made use of the program.

At a national level, the number of temporary foreign worker approvals increased about 70 per cent last year relative to 2019, according to data from ESDC.

This marks a shift in federal practice from 2014, when a backlash against the TFW program prompted Ottawa to overhaul it, setting limits on how many temporary foreign worker positions a business could hire and making it more difficult for them to do so.

Some see the recent changes as a necessary move to help shore up staffing levels post-pandemic, while others view it as a step in the wrong direction for Canada's economy.

Pandemic 'exacerbated' labour shortage

The uptick in approvals came after the federal government raised the cap on how many temporary foreign workers a business could hire for low-wage positions, increasing it from 10 per cent to 20 per cent of a company's total workforce.

As of last spring, sectors with "demonstrated labour shortages," including accommodation and food services, can hire up to 30 per cent of their staff through the program.

The government's definition of a low-wage position is one that is below the provincial or territorial median hourly wage. In Alberta, that's $28.85.

In the tourism-driven Bow Valley — where "Help Wanted" signs pepper restaurant windows, and online job boards are pages long — the most common approvals were for cooks, light duty cleaners and food-service supervisors.

"These are positions that historically have always had labour shortages, even before the pandemic. The pandemic has just exacerbated them," said Karli Fleury, director of workforce and communications with the Banff & Lake Louise Hospitality Association.

Karli Fleury, director of workforce and communications with the Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association, is pictured inside a Banff brewery.

Banff-based businesses with the highest number of approvals were:

  • Banff Caribou Properties Ltd., with 120 positions.
  • Rimrock Resort Hotel, with 40 positions.
  • FHR Banff Operations Corporation, the company behind the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel, with 30 positions.

Of businesses with head offices in Canmore (some of whose workers may be based elsewhere), those with the highest number of approvals were:

  • K S Somers Enterprises Ltd., a McDonald's franchisee, with 73 positions.
  • 2022994 Alberta Ltd., a Tim Hortons franchisee, with 34 positions.

None of the businesses listed above agreed to an interview with CBC News, though the general manager of the Rimrock Resort Hotel said his business is "pro the [TFW] program."

The Tim Hortons head office sent a statement confirming some of its restaurant owners have hired temporary foreign workers as a way to mitigate post-pandemic labour disruptions, and it noted that the Canmore franchise owner — who runs four restaurants in the area — also offers subsidized housing and transportation for his employees.

A "We're Hiring" sign is pictured at a Tim Hortons restaurant in Canmore, Alberta.

Program offers stability, opportunity

In the Bow Valley, temporary foreign workers are still a relatively small element of the region's workforce — which also includes Canadians and travellers with open work permits, such as the young Australians and New Zealanders who have long flocked to the Rocky Mountains on working holiday visas.

For businesses, the particular appeal of the TFW program is that it offers not just labour but security.

A Canadian, or a New Zealander on a working holiday visa, who takes a housekeeping job in Banff could quit their job at any time if they get a better offer elsewhere.

The Banff Caribou Lodge and Spa is pictured in Banff, Alberta.

But temporary foreign workers have work permits that are tied to a specific employer. While they can change jobs in Canada, they would need a new work permit and an offer from another employer that has already received permission to hire a temporary foreign worker.

"It provides more stability in our workforce through the temporary foreign worker program," Fleury said. "We know that we have invested in this person to come to the country and that they're going to stay with us at least two years."

From a worker's perspective, the draw of the program is that it offers the prospect of getting a foothold in Canada, allowing them to build up experience with the goal of applying for permanent residency.

Jun Cacayuran poses for a picture in Banff, Alta.

Jun Cacayuran's family is an example of that success story. His wife arrived in Canada from the Philippines as a temporary foreign worker at a Banff hotel in 2010. Once she had received her permanent residency, she sponsored Cacayuran and their two children to join her in 2013.

He said many people in the Philippines are motivated to move to Canada to seek better wages and secure a better life for their families.

"The system here in Canada is much better than anywhere else," said Cacayuran, who lives in Banff and now helps other newly arrived temporary foreign workers as president of the Filipino-Canadian Community Association in the Rockies.

Ask around town and you'll hear similar perspectives. CBC News spoke with five temporary foreign workers in the Bow Valley, all of whom hoped to achieve permanent residence status in the future.

Like Fleury, Cacayuran said temporary foreign workers play a key role in keeping the local economy going.

"Not only in Banff but in the whole Bow Valley, or in the whole of Canada, we need these temporary foreign workers and [for them] to be a permanent resident, because there is a scarcity in labour force," he said.

The case against the TFW program

Some worry, however, that tying the prospect of permanent residency to a low-wage service job — one that workers generally aren't allowed to quit without losing their ability to work in Canada — puts them in a vulnerable spot.

That can make it difficult to push back against low wages or poor working conditions, said Foster, the Athabasca University professor.

"Workers are willing to put up with a lot in the hopes that they can land permanent residency," he said. "It's just too easy for an unscrupulous employer to take advantage of this system without consequence."

Athabasca University labour relations Prof. Jason Foster is pictured in a headshot.

René Dumont, a Banff-based community engagement worker with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, said that's a fair criticism. While most employers treat their workers well and respect their contracts, Dumont said, there are exceptions.

"It does put people in more challenging situations, for sure," he said.

In response to questions about worker vulnerability, a spokesperson for ESDC said the government has recently strengthened protections for temporary foreign workers and that open work permits are available for those experiencing abuse.

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Beyond the issue of a power imbalance, economist Mikal Skuterud said he also sees an economic case against the low-wage TFW program.

Businesses may have a hard time hiring people for entry-level positions, but he said it isn't the government's job to solve that problem.

"That's a crazy way to think about what a government's responsibility is in the economy," Skuterud, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ont., said in an interview with CBC News.

Instead, he said, labour shortages should be seen as an opportunity.

When businesses are forced to compete for staff, they are pushed to raise wages, offer benefits and otherwise make their jobs more appealing, Skuterud wrote in a piece on temporary foreign workers he co-authored for the magazine Policy Options.

They're also more likely to hire people who historically have had a hard time getting a foothold in the labour market, he said, such as new immigrants and people with disabilities.

Farm workers clear a field.

That competition also pushes businesses to invest in employee training and use their existing workers more efficiently, he said.

Some businesses might fail if they can't keep up in this environment, Skuterud said, but that's the free market at work.

"Business failures are a necessary reality of a healthy, well-functioning economy," he wrote.

Employers cautiously optimistic about high season

In a statement to CBC News, the ESDC spokesperson emphasized that the TFW program is "designed to be responsive to changes in the labour market" and that it's reviewed on an ongoing basis to ensure its policies reflect the latest economic conditions.

The extended 30 per cent hiring cap has been renewed once already, and it's now expected to last until October — though Foster said he wonders whether the temporary change brought in last year might crystallize into a permanent feature.

"I'm immediately curious about whether this is going to just be a temporary post-COVID [situation] or if this becomes another wave of sustained reliance on temporary foreign workers," he said.

In the Bow Valley, Fleury said, temporary foreign workers and other employees have started to arrive in recent months ahead of the high season, leading to a sense of cautious optimism among employers.

While it isn't yet clear what the future of the program may be, Fleury said she expects it, along with the working holiday program, will always have some role to play in tourism-driven economies like Banff.

"We will always be using these programs in some capacity," she said.

A person walks into the Rimrock Resort Hotel in Banff, Alta.


Paula Duhatschek is a reporter with CBC Calgary who previously worked for CBC News in Kitchener and in London, Ont. You can reach her at paula.duhatschek@cbc.ca.

    With files from Robson Fletcher

    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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