B.C. Labour Tensions Rise Over Foreign Workers

B.C. labour tensions rise over foreign workers
Total doubles in three years but employers want more

Michael Scott, Vancouver Sun
Published: Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The number of foreign workers in B.C. has doubled in three years, increasing tensions between organized labour and the province's business leaders.

Unions say the program to attract foreign workers is exploitative and should be cancelled. Businesses want to expand the program to combat chronic worker shortages.

Federal government figures show there were 44,000 people in B.C. with valid work permits in mid-July. That's a 36-per-cent increase over 2005, and double the 21,939 who were here in 2003.

The labour shortage in B.C. has been so acute that apples in the Okanagan are going unpicked this month, and construction companies in the Lower Mainland have applied for permits to hire hundreds of foreign workers.

Whistler's Chamber of Commerce, concerned about a shortage of skilled and unskilled labour in that future Olympic town, announced plans to hire a full-time recruitment specialist to address the situation.

“There are definite shortages of qualified people in a variety of different occupations and industries,” said Jock Finlayson, executive director of the Business Council of B.C. The council represents 200 large and medium-sized companies that collectively account for one in four jobs in B.C.

“I'm not surprised at the trend, but I am a little surprised at the magnitude [of the increase],” Finlayson said.

He said the council's own research predicts that the province's permanent labour force will suffer a sharp decline in growth during the next 10 to 15 years, and that temporary foreign workers might be one part of the solution.

Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, representing 450,000 workers in B.C., said he is angry the labour movement has never been asked for its opinion on shortages.

“The government gets behind closed doors with the employers and we are not part of the discussion that should be asking What are the real shortages? What are the various ways of dealing with this?”

Sinclair said the B.C. Fed is philosophically opposed to a two-tier system of rights for workers. “We want [the foreign worker] program to be cancelled,” he said.

Foreign workers coming to Canada should have the opportunity to become Canadian citizens, Sinclair said, and share more completely in helping to build the country.

“Imagine if our parents and grandparents, when they first came to Canada, had only come as temporary workers,” he said.

Tensions flared last month when unionized ironworkers walked off the job in Vancouver to protest what they see as the risk of Canadians being replaced by temporary foreign workers. The German construction company Bilfinger Berger has applied to bring in 345 foreign ironworkers for its Golden Ears Bridge project.

That move enraged officials of Ironworkers Local 97, who said there was no shortage of experienced ironworkers in Canada ready to work on the project.

“They're nuts,” said Ironworkers business manager Perley Homes, in a statement. “Bilfinger Berger is paying lower wages and benefits than other unionized contractors to their temporary foreign workers. They're not paying fair market rates, and this is putting pressure on other contractor firms to reduce wages and benefits, and look at hiring temporary foreign workers.”

Both the B.C. Fed's Sinclair and Holmes argue that skilled Canadian workers are available, but construction employers disagree.

“I can tell you this is the first time in 20 years that the entire construction industry from coast to coast has been busy,” said Philip Hochstein, who through the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association represents some 700 construction companies in B.C.

“In the 1980s, we could get good workers from Quebec, but now there's enough work that those people are staying put,” he said.

“We need skilled people. We know there are lots of trainees here coming along, and we will eventually train our way out of this situation.

“But right now, our productivity is terrible and we need a source of good skilled workers.”

Hochstein fired a salvo at union leaders.

“They have a perverse notion that keeping out foreign workers will somehow prolong the 'boom' here,” he said. “That's just myopic.”

In the Okanagan, this year's shortage of agricultural workers is at a critical level, according to Weldon LeBlanc, chief executive of the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce, which represents 1,555 businesses in the central Okanagan.

“We are really hard hit this year,” he said.

“It has been a real challenge for farmers here to find pickers. I would have to say it is a severe problem.”

Orchardists in the Okanagan told Canadian Press that it has never been harder to find field hands to help with the apple harvest. “I think we'll see a lot more Mexicans brought here to work in the orchards next year,” said Russell Husch, who grows apples in Lake Country, north of Kelowna.

B.C. agriculture employers hired 1,100 seasonal workers from Mexico this year, the third year of the Seasonal Workers Program. The average Mexican field worker stays here about five months, said Mike Wallis, executive director of the B.C. Raspberry Council and the B.C. Cranberry Growers' Association.

“They earn as much in three or four months here as they would earn in Mexico in a year, if they could find the work,” Wallis said.

LeBlanc said that agriculture in the Interior valley is not the only industry that is suffering for want of workers. Tourism and hospitality, and the construction trades are also being pinched.

“You see fast food restaurants that used to be open until 2 a.m. closing at 10, or not opening in the evenings at all. You see drive-through restaurants parking cars across their driveways to discourage customers,” LeBlanc said.

“There is intense competition for the kids who would normally fill these jobs, and the kids who do have the jobs are working, in some cases, more hours than their parents.”

B.C.'s strong economy spurred the federal government earlier this year to change the way foreign worker permits are processed. A new unit in Vancouver was opened Sept. 1 to fast-track certain specialized applications, dealing with business visitors, diplomats, performers and others outside the main labour pool.

Touted at the time as a pilot program to alleviate a shortage of workers, the unit is currently handling only 12 files.

The regular Foreign Worker Unit in Vancouver is handling files at a level similar to previous years, according to government spokesman Ron Marshall.

The overall number of applications is relatively constant, year to year, Marshall said, although his staff of 40 has noticed a decrease in applications for live-in home care workers this year, and a corresponding increase in applications for construction trades, agricultural workers, and medical personnel.

B.C. has the highest per capita presence of foreign workers in Canada, twice the rate of Ontario.