Some Canadian employers are willing to incur the added costs of hiring temporary foreign workers because they believe they have a better work ethic than Canadian workers, says the president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
"I can tell you, anecdotally, I’ve had many many emails from small business owners who’ve said that their temporary foreign workers are among the most productive employees, that are doing really high quality work, that have terrific customer service skills and, more than anything, are reliable," Dan Kelly said in a phone interview with CBC News.
The issue of temporary foreign workers has again become a subject of controversy following a CBC Go Public story that revealed that restaurant chain McDonald’s is under federal investigation over possible abuses of the Temporary Foreign Worker program at a franchise outlet in B.C.
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The government probe began after a McDonald's employee told Go Public that the fast food outlet is bringing in Filipino workers while cutting local staffers’ hours and turning away dozens of seemingly qualified Canadians seeking jobs.
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Although Kelly said he couldn't comment on the specifics of the B.C. McDonald's case, he said that, unfortunately, he does hear more and more from business owners that "temporary foreign workers are often their hardest working employees" who will "take every late shift or early morning shift that’s offered to them."
"They’re not going to take the day off because they have to take their dog to the vet. They’re going to show up to work on time, they're going to work a full week without disappearing," Kelly said.
"The strengths of some of the TFW workers, in terms of their work ethic is, it pains me to say this, but, sometimes it is better than that of their Canadian counterparts," Kelly said.
Employers who do bring in temporary foreign workers for low-skill jobs must go though huge amounts of paperwork and incur extra costs that include providing their foreign employees with airfare to and from their home country and helping them with accommodations, Kelly said.
"I do think that there are an increasing number of employers who believe that, despite the higher costs that the TFW program often will bring to them," that temporary foreign workers are worth the extra expense because they are more dependable than the domestic workforce. "Sadly, we are hearing that."
Kelly said it's time to have an "adult conversation about the world of work" and that "we have to admit as Canadians that there are certain sectors of the economy and certain regions of the country where Canadians are not particularly excited about working.
"And the retail sector and the hospitality sector in particular often can find somebody that might show up for a couple of days, but then disappears. And what an employer needs is some consistency," he said.
But Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, strongly rejects claims that Canadian workers are less productive than temporary foreign workers. He said the difference is that many foreign workers are compliant, out of fear of losing their job.
"Is it a bad thing that Canadians stand up for themselves and don't allow themselves to be pushed around by their employers in low-wage service sector jobs?"
"What he's saying is that the government should provide low-wage employers with a compliant, pliable group of workers who are afraid to stand up for themselves," McGowan said. "And that when workers stand up for themselves and refuse to be disrespected in the workplace, that that is somehow a bad thing? I think most Canadians would find that offensive."
McGowan said justifying the temporary foreign worker program because it gives low-wage employers access to a "large and growing group of exploitable workers" who won't take a sick day or take time off for a sick child is a "shameful argument."
In the B.C. McDonald's case, Go Public found that records showed several of the Filipino workers were actually paid 20 per cent more than most of the Canadian staff.
Kelly said he wasn't at all surprised to hear that. "This happens all the time," he said.
Kelly said if an employer is in an industry like big full-service restaurants, then the employer is required to pay the industry average. That means they will often end up paying temporary foreign workers more than Canadian workers.
Dominique Gross, professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Public Policy, said the Philippines actually has a program that promotes and trains its citizens to become temporary foreign workers abroad who, in turn, send home money to their families.
The Philippines government sets out rules and organizes training for temporary foreign workers because it doesn't want their citizens to give their country a bad reputation. This means Filipinos are taught how to be disciplined and how to work in high-income countries, she said.
Prof. Gross said that there haven't been any studies comparing the productivity of temporary foreign workers to Canadians. But if Canadian employers believe these workers will be hard-working, reliable, and will have the correct skills for the job, they will be ready to "pay them a little bit more because their productivity is pretty good."
As well, temporary foreign workers can be hired for four years. With a high turnover rate in the restaurant and service industry, employers greatly value workers they know will be with them for a set term.
Removing the spectre of uncertainty in an industry with an ever-changing labour market may be worth the extra money spent on temporary foreign workers, Gross said.
"So they are pretty much assured that for four years, they're going to get pretty good workers," Gross said. "The businesses may be ready to to pay a little bit more for that because potentially it saves money."