Credit Crisis Means New Hurdles For Foreign Workers

Credit crisis means new hurdles for foreign workers
As unemployment grows, it's tougher to justify hiring anyone from abroad

By Joanne Lee-Young
Vancouver Sun
March 2, 2009

(Bernie Julve is a labour officer at the Philippine Consulate. Hiring workers from Philippines might get tougher. Photograph by: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Sun)

John Babiak runs a Dairy Queen fast food outlet in the small, highway-side town of Princeton. Last year, he steadily welcomed small batches of workers from the Philippines to help fill staff shortages.

He was one of many B.C. businesses, random and corporate, that were plying the momentum of a booming economy to bring thousands more of these workers in an organized fashion, quickly and efficiently.

But as the economy sours and job losses in B.C. mount, a dramatic halt to this story is emerging, one that may be understandable in context, but is disturbing to some observers.

All last year, the B.C government was hot on the trail, competing against other jurisdictions, such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, to seal goodwill with counterparts in the Philippines.

Just last October, it organized a job fair in Manila, taking five or so B.C. companies to suss out nearly 500 potential candidates there. Both sides agreed to formalize policies for better handling of what was to be a wave of workers.

But by January of this year, there were 129,000 job losses across the country, the biggest monthly decline in three decades, according to Statistics Canada. That total was largely accounted for by Ontario, at 71,000 job losses. B.C. losses at 35,000, however, were the second highest, outstripping those of Quebec at 26,000.

Suddenly, it's not so clear anymore why B.C. employers need to tap overseas sources for workers.

And quietly, at the federal level, Service Canada, which issues the so-called Labour Market Opinions (LMOs) needed by companies to hire foreign workers, has been making it harder to get applications approved.

In January, new rules were unveiled. Companies have to locally advertise positions for longer. They must provide more details such as mock-ups of their shift schedules. Last week, some electronically filed LMOs started appearing with best-before dates, said Richard Kurland of Vancouver-based Lexbase, which analyses immigration trends.

“For all practical purposes, chunks of Canada's foreign worker program are being shut down,” said Kurland. “It's a startling reversal of a multi-year, ever-increasing trend of foreign workers entering so we can meet the red-hot economy. This is akin to us flipping switches to an ice-cold, glacier bath. And so, the welcome mat has not just been pulled. It's gone.”

Foreign workers in many other once-booming markets across all socio-economic categories are also facing new hurdles and scrutiny in varying degrees. U.S. banks with executives hired from overseas were recently put under the spotlight during bailout negotiations. In Alberta, Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald has said he plans to push for a suspension of the temporary foreign worker program as oil and gas companies start to downsize.

The B.C. government officially hopes to stay its course. “Even during the current economic slowdown, skilled labour shortages remain a critical issue for B.C. employers,” said Murray Coell, minister of advanced education and labour market development, in a statement.

Indeed, Babiak, owner of the Dairy Queen in Princeton, is still bringing workers from the Philippines. Two weeks ago, he welcomed another two. A few more are already in the pipeline and he anticipates making newer applications. In doing this, he is very concerned about what burgeoning protectionist attitudes could mean.

“I am definitely worried about getting caught” in any backlash against hiring foreign workers, he said. “Personally, we had a hard-go of getting this going. If they don't continue with this program, a lot of businesses won't be able to survive because they would have to downsize. They won't be able to afford their mortgages and overheads. Really, it'll affect more the smaller communities than the large ones.”

The math isn't as simple as it might appear, says Babiak. When he first moved to Princeton a decade ago, there were about 200 high school graduates a year. Now, that number is down to 20.

In good times, when “the economy was melting and there was high income development, the small communities lost a lot of young people who migrated to big cities to find these jobs.”

In a downturn, few high-tail it back to flip burgers just because they have lost their more lucrative jobs elsewhere. Said Babiak: “Very little come back because they have now established roots elsewhere.”

At go2, a B.C. tourism industry human resources association, CEO Arlene Keis described current economic pressures as “a moment in time. We need to look at the big picture. The more important factor is demographics. That isn't changing even in a downturn. When things pick up, the shortages will be worse.”

She is seeking the latest information about LMO applications. Her last look dates back to September, but she has filed for a more current snapshot. In the meantime, she, anecdotally, hears that there are not nearly as many applications because there is more of a local supply of workers. That's good, she says. But it doesn't solve the issue of how to deal with temporary foreign workers, including those already here, in the pipeline or who might be needed in the future.



The number of temporary foreign workers in the province has been increasing steadily for years, but is now expected to drop dramatically. Totals for the number of temporary foreign workers in B.C. (as of December for each year):

2004 26,854
2005 31,494
2006 35,229
2007 43,513
2008 58,456