British Columbia

Is it time to relax temporary foreign worker rules to help small business?

With unemployment at near-historic lows, a Vancouver bagel shop owner is calling on government to relax foreign worker regulations to help alleviate the labour shortage.

"It's a hot issue," says Vancouver's Leah Markovitch, whose bagel business needs 25 more workers

Leah Markovich, owner of Solly's Bagelry, thinks it's time to consider bringing back the foreign temporary workers program. (Ash Kelly/CBC)

With the unemployment rate at near-historic lows, a Vancouver business owner says it's time for the government to relax regulations around the Temporary Foreign Worker Program so small businesses like hers can survive.

"It's a hot issue, but I think we need to very quickly reinstate the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to where it was pre-Olympics," said Leah Markovitch, owner of Solly's Bagelry.

"The city has grown phenomenally since the Olympics but we do not have the bodies [for the jobs]. And that's a very big problem."

In 2014, the federal government tightened the rules around the use of temporary foreign workers after it was revealed some companies were abusing the program and hiring foreigners over Canadians. 

'So much red tape'

For Markovitch it meant the process to hire a TFW went from being straightforward and efficient, to being so complicated and time-consuming that it's not worth the effort.

"It's such a hard process to get someone now," she said. "There's so much red tape."

The first Solly's store opened in 1994 on Main Street. There are now three Solly's in Vancouver, but the business is short 25 workers and has been forced to reduce its hours of operation. (CBC)

New numbers from Statistics Canada shed light on the pain many small business owners face trying to find workers.

Amid 40-year lows for national unemployment numbers, B.C'.s  jobless rate ranks as the lowest in the country at 4.6 per cent.

'Everyone who wants to work is working'

In Vancouver, the number is even smaller — 4.1 per cent. 

"It means everyone who wants to work is already working," said Markovitch.

Richard Truscott of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business says the labour shortage is hitting small businesses hard in B.C. He agrees that relaxing temporary foreign worker regulations is one way to address the problem.

"We believe the government over reacted," he said. "There were absolutely some issues in the program and examples of misuse and abuse ... but at the same time the government had a knee-jerk reaction to impose a bunch of new restrictions and rules."

"It's not just the temporary foreign worker program that's the issue," said Truscott, "The entire immigration system is in desperate need of reform in the sense that it needs to better align with the needs of the economy and smaller employers who often struggle to find enough people to work inside their business."

In a perfect world, Markovitch would employ 65 part-time and full-time workers at her three stores. Currently she is 25 workers short, despite paying well above minimum wage.

As a result, she's had to cut back her stores' hours of operation. She says staff is "stressed out" and describes the business as operating "in survival mode."

Truscott believes there's a chance the situation is only going to get worse for Solly's and other small B.C. businesses.

"The other thing that's happening is the Alberta economy is roaring back to life and that's going to present some challenges to small business owners in B.C. if the Alberta economy is sucking more people back into that province," he said.

With files from Margaret Gallagher