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Posted: May 3, 2014

Job killer or an unfortunate necessity?

Gerry WarnerPerceptions by Gerry Warner

The temporary foreign workers program is much in the news these days and people can’t seem to decide whether it’s a villain or an unfortunate necessity in today’s rapidly changing job market.

Personally, I’m not sure what to think. Back in the ‘60s when I was still finding my way in the world, I would sometimes find myself out of work at which point there were usually two alternatives – find a forest fire to fight or hitch-hike to Osoyoos and pick fruit.

Neither possibility paid much, but it beat shooting pool for spare change at the old pool hall near the tracks in Castlegar and I wasn’t a good pool player anyway. So if there were no fires burning out went the thumb and usually the same day I’d find myself in Osoyoos at the south end of the Okanagan Valley where the fruit hung low from the trees and you’d get paid for whatever you picked that day. No one got rich doing this, but hey, you got enough to buy a burger and maybe half a case of Kokanee at the end of a sweaty day and all was well with the world.

Now times have changed apparently.

About 10 years ago, I was passing through Osoyoos – in better financial circumstances than my youth I might add – and I stopped at the Husky station on the west side of town and noticed a big splotch of graffiti on the washroom wall that I couldn’t read because it was in Spanish.

What’s this, I thought, and then the realization hit me. Migrant Mexican farm workers had made their way north to the Okanagan Valley in Canada and the world was indeed changing. I later found out the reason for the change. Orchardists couldn’t find local help anymore to pick the fruit while hungry Mexicans were eager to do the job and they worked harder too. Or so it was alleged. Mind you, in my case it was probably true.

Fast forward to today and with something like 300,000  “temporary” foreign workers in Canada from sea to shining sea the newcomers have become a hot button political issue blamed for taking jobs from Canadians and not just fruit picking jobs either. The eager newcomers have become a major presence in the fast-food industry, hotels and anywhere looking for cheap, minimum-wage labour. And in the case of well-to-do folks looking for nannies and housekeepers almost 90 per cent of whom come from the Philippines.

But now the temporary foreign worker program is under fire – heavy fire – for taking jobs away from Canadians, so much so, that it has nudged the unemployment rate up in some parts of the country according to a study by the C.D. Howe Institute, which caused Employment Minister Jason Kenny to impose a moratorium on the program in the food services industry after complaints poured in from Canadian workers claiming they were being displaced by foreign workers at McDonalds and Tim Hortons including the Tim Hortons at Fernie.

In another celebrated incident the new HD Mining coal mine in northern B.C. came under fire for trying to hire 200 Chinese miners while claiming it couldn’t hire the miners it needed in Canada.

In Nelson, two former employees of the Prestige Hotel lost their jobs after Mexican workers arrived. They complained to the Employment Standards Branch and one of the workers was awarded $767 in severance and the hotel was fined $500. The supervisor, who lost her job, told CBC she complained because  “it wasn’t fair to me and it wasn’t fair to my staff.”

And that begs the question – is the controversial Temporary Foreign Workers Program fair?

A Prestige Hotel spokesman said the program was an “absolute necessity” in some rural locations and insisted his company was using the program “ethically.” A spokesman for HD Mining said its mine will use a mining method new to Canada and there are no Canadian miners with the necessary skills.

So there you have it. Are Canadian worker lazy and unskilled and unwilling to do menial jobs or incapable of doing skilled jobs? Or is the Temporary Foreign Workers program being exploited and abused by greedy and unscrupulous employers?

The answer, if there is an answer, dear reader is up to you.

Gerry Warner is a retired journalist and a Cranbrook City Councillor. His opinions are his own and he’s still a lousy pool player.

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