Businesses in Yellowknife will once again be able to hire temporary foreign workers after winning an exemption from a hiring ban imposed by the federal government.

Parts of Canada with high unemployment rates were barred from accessing foreign workers last June as part of a federal government overhaul designed to address abuse of the system.

Grant Beck

Grant Beck of Beck's Kennels has three temporary foreign workers on a staff of 29. 'It means a great deal because Yellowknife is getting a lot of Asian tourists,' he says. 'They demand translators.' (CBC)

Regions with unemployment rates over 6 per cent were barred from accessing the program. The Northwest Territories had an unemployment rate of just over 7 per cent.

The territorial government asked that an exemption be made for Yellowknife, because its unemployment rate, at just over 2 per cent, is much lower than the territory's.

Grant Beck of Beck's Kennels in Yellowknife said he is happy about the change as he relies on foreign workers as translators.

Demand for translators

"It means a great deal because Yellowknife is getting a lot of Asian tourists," he says.

"Most of the agencies in China speak only Chinese. They want, they demand Chinese workers. And if you don't have them, communication's very slow and very difficult."

Of his staff of 29, three are temporary foreign workers. The foreign workers have specialized jobs in leading tours, marketing and promotions and interpreting.

Beck says he pays his foreign workers between $17 and $22 an hour. Accommodations and meals are provided, including shipments of specialty Asian foods from Vancouver. He says for the duration of their term, they get benefits, double time on holidays and at least one trip home each year.

He says he was one of many employers that felt the sting last year when access to the program was denied. To fill the void he hired overseas staff with temporary visas.

"You spend a whole lot of time training them so they could translate some of the stuff that we're doing," he says. "A year goes by and you've got to reinvent the wheel." 

Yumi Kuromasa came to Canada from Japan through the program and works as an interpreter, marketer and promoter for Beck's Kennels. She recently got her permanent residency approved and said she will continue working in Yellowknife.

"I really like Canada, the Northern lights," she said. "People are very nice. I really love working here."

Program changes

There are a number of changes being made to the program. The application that requires employers to show their efforts to hire Canadians first costs more. There will also be caps on how many temporary foreign workers a business can hire, and more frequent inspections to ensure the program isn't being abused.

"Canadians must be given priority for jobs, and the TFW shouldn't be used as a legalized slave trade route as we've seen in the past," said Alexander Lambrecht, a spokesperson for the the Northwest Territories Federation of Labour.

'The TFW shouldn't be used as a legalized slave trade route as we've seen in the past.' - Alexander Lambrecht

"The government must ensure that proper investigation and sanctions are in place to address employers that abuse and exploit the program and more importantly the people that are being brought to Canada under the temporary foreign worker program."

He said both the territorial and federal governments need to learn from their past mistakes, and work to ensure the human rights of foreign workers are protected. He adds that the program cannot be used to undermine the wages that workers are paid, as the effects of underpaying temporary foreign workers affects the wages of all Canadians.

Permanent residency

Charina Villanueva

Charina Villanueva has been in Yellowknife for two years under the temporary foreign worker program, working at Mac's convenience store. (CBC)

Charina Villanueva has been in Yellowknife for two years under the temporary foreign worker program, working at Mac's convenience store. She recently filed for permanent residency with a nomination from her employer.

She says the employer can delay the nomination it if an employee is not performing well.

"Some are delaying it, purposely, because they don't want to lose their foreign worker right away. Once we get the permanent residency what happens is people look for a better paying job. Or a job that suits their needs, or skills."

She says the nomination for residency used to come a lot easier for foreign workers when employers had easier access to the program.

"Now it's tougher because they want to hold onto their foreign workers."

Villanueva says her job is physically and mentally demanding and she's seen people come and go in a week. She says some just don't find the pay worth it. So why does she choose to do the job?

"Because I'm a foreign worker; because the job demands it," she says.

Villanueva says she's well connected with foreign workers at McDonald's, Canadian Tire and Bubble Tea. Despite some isolated cases of delayed nominations, she says the program works.

"We're lucky to be here," she said. "The program, it really works well in Yellowknife."