The owners of two small businesses in Yellowknife say they're being punished for someone else's wrongdoing, after the federal Minister of Employment Jason Kenney put a hold on restaurants using the temporary foreign worker program due to alleged abuses of the system.
Reports indicate some fast-food restaurants are hiring foreign workers ahead of Canadians, who could have done the job, and then those restaurant owners are underpaying the foreign workers.
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But now, the temporary hold as well as the review of the program has some restaurant owners in Yellowknife very worried about what it will mean for their staff, as well as the future of their businesses.
The federal government says Canadians must have the first chance at any available job in the country. But in the North, there are some jobs that northerners aren't qualified for, like the two sushi chefs at one downtown Yellowknife restaurant.
"We try to hire local Canadian people, but we won't have enough people to fill the jobs," said Raymond Li, owner of Sushi Café.
Li says because Japanese food has become so trendy, sushi chefs are hard to come by not only in the North, but across Canada.
"If this is only for a short period of time, it's OK. Because right now we still have a couple [temporary foreign workers].
"But down the road, we really don't know. I don't know, some restaurants may be facing closing because the shortage of manpower."
Rami Kassem, co-owner of the coffee shop Javaroma in Yellowknife, has four temporary foreign workers and seven Canadians on staff.
He says Kenney's decision punishes everyone for the actions of a few restaurant owners.
"So it's not fair for McDonald's, it's not fair for Tim Hortons or A&W or us as small businesses. So now if we have plans, that's too bad."
Kassem says he relies on temporary foreign workers because he can count on them and they're tied to the job for a year, while local workers often leave for better paying jobs, giving him little notice.
Review should benefit all
The director of the NWT Chamber of Commerce spoke to Kenney, and told him how essential the program is for the North.
"So rather than eliminating it, he's going to put one sector under scrutiny," says Mike Bradshaw, of the NWT Chamber of Commerce. "And I'm sure if he doesn't like what he finds out, if it's sort of broad-brush abuse, then we're all going to lose the program."
Bradshaw says the review of the temporary foreign workers program should ultimately benefit local restaurants. Meanwhile, the owners of those restaurants are hoping they don't lose staff before the review is done.
"If Mr. Kenney would step out of his office and go down to small businesses and do their job in the food sector, I think he would change his mind right away," Kassem says.