When James Macdonald was 22, he and his family were deported from the United States. It turns out that the lawyer his family had used to get a Green Card application had falsified their application. As a result, they had to uproot themselves and move back to Canada.
Macdonald tried to stay, even volunteering to join the navy, but to no avail.
Several years later he started managing the Revelstoke A&W. In that position, he’s seen the immigration from a different lens – as an employer of temporary foreign workers (TFW).
His own experience, combined with that of the employees he’s hired from abroad inspired him to become an immigration consultant.
“I never thought about becoming an immigration consultant until we hired our first temporary foreign workers,” he said. “My family was the victim of a bad immigration lawyer and we got deported from the United States. Going through that experience and knowing what it’s like it sparked an interest in me to make sure that doesn’t happen to any of these temporary foreign workers.”
The temporary foreign worker program has been in the news lately after several abuses of the system were revealed. In one high-profile case, a large mine in northern B.C. applied to hire several hundred TFWs because they claimed they couldn’t find Canadians who met the job requirements. One of the requirements was an ability to speak Mandarin.
A second high-profile case came 50 Royal Bank IT workers were laid off and replaced by TFW from India.
The scandals prompted the Conservative government to make changes to the program making it harder for employers to hire TFW. Businesses will have to advertise job openings longer and can no longer pay TFW less than Canadians. The accelerated hiring program will be eliminated and French and English are the only language requirements.
For Macdonald, and other Revelstoke employers, these changes aren’t a big issue.
Brian Lecompte, who owns the Revelstoke Tim Hortons said it will make it harder to hire TFW, but he will still need to hire them to fill vacancies. He has hired a number of foreign workers in the past, some of whom have since received permanent residency, and is intending on hiring more.
“The government obviously has to look at it in the real life that it is and if I’ve got 10 positions to fill and I only get three applications,” he said. “I’ve got to get them from somewhere, otherwise I’m pulling my hair out.”
Macdonald said foreign workers provide stability for his business. He employs five – one who is now the assistant manager and two who have formed family.
“In our restaurants, the biggest thing is finding a couple of full-time staff to bring stability just so we can serve the customers coming through the door as it is right now,” he said. “That stability helps the business all the way around.”
In Revelstoke, temporary foreign workers mostly work in low-wage service industries like fast food restaurants and at hotels. The Times Review wrote a story on the lives of foreign workers here several years ago and did not hear of any horror stories then. Nor did hear of any reports of abuse of the program or of TFWs being hired ahead of Canadians now.
Lori Milmine, the work experience co-ordinator at Revelstoke Secondary School, said she had not heard of any students getting turned down for jobs and foreign workers hired instead. “Employers here are pretty good at taking care of their own,” she said.
Michelle Cole, the president of the Shuswap Columbia Labour Council, said he not heard of any abuses of the program or of workers in Revelstoke. She did like the proposed changes to the program.
“I think the bottom line is it doesn’t matter where people come from if they’re prepared to be part of the community and their rights are being respecting,” she said.
BR Whalen, who works with foreign workers at Okanagan College, said the program is open to abuse, but employees can file anonymous complaints with the Ministry of Labour.
“They are such a vulnerable group and there’s not really anyone official policing what goes on other than something somebody like myself might observe,” she said. “The employer cannot hold a complaint against the employee but there’s still a lot of fear because people have so much at stake.”
For Macdonald, hiring temporary foreign workers has been a good news story. They’ve provided badly needed stability at his business, where hiring full-time, dedicated employees is a chore. The changes to the program won’t affect his hiring, and he thinks they’re a good move to prevent people from abusing the program. He would gladly hire Canadians if they were willing to do the work. As it stands, he’ll hire pretty much everyone that applies.
He said hiring foreign workers generally ends up being more expensive because employers are responsible for flying workers to Canada and helping them adjust to life here.
“Why would we put all of the money into the applications, into trying to find workers, into airplane tickets, setting them up with housing and pay them a higher wage?” he said. “We wouldn’t do that if we didn’t have to, if we had the applications coming through.”