Manitoba-Iceland labour partnership sputters

There is growing disappointment and frustration with a new labour initiative to place workers from Iceland with employers in Manitoba, which was created earlier this year but has yet to be implemented.

There is growing disappointment and frustration with a new labour initiative to place workers from Iceland with employers in Manitoba, which was created earlier this year but has yet to be implemented.

The idea was to fill job openings in Manitoba with skilled, unemployed workers in Iceland. In February, Manitoba Labour Minister Nancy Allen sent a letter to the government in Iceland, proposing the initiative.

She promised to fast-track applications made under Manitoba's provincial nominee program and Ottawa's temporary foreign worker program.

Officials in Iceland pre-interview potential candidates for employers in Manitoba, who also go through a screening process.

After working in Manitoba for at least six months, the Icelandic workers are able to apply to become permanent residents.

The Manitoba and Icelandic governments signed off on the initiative in April. So far, 43 Icelanders have been matched to jobs, but not a single one has moved to Manitoba.

Process hung up in federal rules

The hang-up appears to be with the federal government's rules around the temporary foreign worker program.

Before any Manitoba employers hire someone under the program, they must first advertise for staff within the province. If no one qualifies, Ottawa will give the employer permission to hire from outside of the country.

An official with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada told CBC News that only one Manitoba employer has submitted an application to hire people from outside the country.

The process is too long and complicated, so many Icelanders are looking for work in Europe instead, said Gissur Petursson, the head of the Icelandic government's Directorate of Labour, which is responsible for matching workers with job openings in Manitoba.

"It has moved slower than I expected, and that's bad, not the least for those who are unemployed, because time doesn't work for them," he said.

Jon Olafsson, who owns an architectural firm in Iceland, called the process "a long and windy road."

"Highly educated people, very skilled workers who had hopes to come to Canada, they actually are not going there because of those fences to jump over," he said.

The economic collapse in his country earlier this year had a devastating impact on his business, so he was eyeing Manitoba for work. He has managed to secure a couple of contracts in the province and was hoping to send some staff to work on them.

Olafsson said the snag in the process is as big a loss to Manitoba as it is to Iceland.

Frustrating delays

Manitoba's construction industry managed to sidestep Canada's economic downturn and has been booming with employers searching for tradespeople.

There are also tens of thousands of people of Icelandic descent in Manitoba. That connection and the job opportunities make it a desirable destination, but many Icelanders are tired of waiting.

Michael Bruneau owns and operates Canadian Corporate Real Estate Services (CCRES) and Corporate Hotels in Manitoba. He has been trying to recruit workers from Iceland for his construction sites and hotels.

CCRES has several projects in the Gimli area, which is home to the largest concentration of people of Icelandic ancestry outside of Iceland itself.

Bruneau thought it would be easy to bring in the workers but told CBC News the paperwork is complicated and the delays are frustrating.

"It's really difficult, to say the least. Everybody's confused," he said.