The president of the Northern Territories Federation of Labour is questioning the fairness of Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker program in Nunavut.

At 12 per cent, the territory has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, but every year dozens of foreign workers come to the territory to take on low-skilled, low paying jobs.

Mary Lou Cherwaty says local workers aren't offered the same benefits that temporary foreign workers are.

"The use of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has been allowed to suppress and lower wages. Therefore the people that do need to live in the territory and make a decent income to be able to do so aren't being offered the same benefits that the temporary foreign workers are."

Cherwaty gives the example of providing housing for foreign workers, which she says creates an unequal playing field in a territory with an acute housing shortage. 

Mary Lou Cherwaty

Mary Lou Cherwaty, president of the Northern Territories Federation of Labour: 'The people that do need to live in the territory and make a decent income to be able to do so aren't being offered the same benefits that the temporary foreign workers are." (George Lessard/Facebook)

“I don’t think they’re making a big enough effort to find people locally and they’re not paying enough locally. That’s what it comes down to.”  

Cherwaty says there’s one facet of the program Nunavut employers are particularly enjoying.

“Once they bring a person over from another country, they’re not allowed to leave that employer. In our opinion, that’s indentured servitude and that should not be allowed.”

The labour federation does not support the low skilled stream of the TFW program. It wants to see see full immigration offered to workers whose labour is demonstrably needed.

1 in 10 Frobisher Inn staff are foreign workers

Statistics posted online by the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration shows there were 53 temporary foreign workers in Nunavut in December 2012. In the previous five years, that number fluctuated between 32 and 61.

Temporary foreign workers make up about 10 per cent of the 75 to 80 staff at the Frobisher Inn in Iqaluit.

“It works for us quite well,” says Rainer Launhardt, vice president of hotels for Nunastar, which owns the hotel. 

“It’s an ongoing problem finding people to staff our operations, so we got a few foreign workers in.”

Nunastar started using the federal program in 2008.

The company covers the cost of international flights, housing as well as staff meals.

Launhardt says finding local staff is challenging, and cites the Nunavut government as the biggest competitor.

The Explorer Inn in Yellowknife, also owned by Nunastar, has 16 foreign workers, fluctuating between 15 to 20 per cent of the hotel’s staff.

‘I won’t get out of bed for that’

Chris West, executive director of the Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce in Iqaluit, defends the use of the program.

“It’s tough to get anybody to work for $11 an hour,” says West, citing the minimum wage in Nunavut, the highest in the country.

“There’s lot of opportunities for locals if they want those jobs. I’ve done interviews in the past with people and offered them a wage that they said, ‘No thanks. I won’t get out of bed for that.’”

West says Iqaluit’s service industry also has a hard time retaining staff.

"I was told that, ‘We've hired a dozen and another dozen and another dozen, but they don't want to stay — they don't want to do the jobs that they were assigned to do.’ So in an industry like that the businesses are forced to look elsewhere."

West also praises the largest population of foreign workers in Iqaluit — Filipinos — for their reputation as hard workers.

“I’m not saying that the locals aren’t hard workers, but for the locals, it’s identifying the work that they want to do.”

Foreign worker happy with the program

"The majority of the program for foreign workers, I think it's good,” says Jude Sese, who came from the Philippines to work at Iqaluit’s Valupharm pharmacy, along with a few other temporary foreign workers.

Sese says temporary foreign workers are not in a position to criticize the program since they've signed a contract to come to Nunavut and must hold up that agreement.

He previously worked as a temporary foreign worker in Saudi Arabia and says working in Nunavut offers more freedom.

Sese says the Filipino community in Iqaluit is tight-knit and so far, he hadn't heard of any abuses.