Temporary foreign worker changes side-swipe fashion industry

Canadian retailers, modelling agencies, photographers and hundreds of members of the fashion industry want the federal government to expedite applications to bring in foreign models and eliminate the $1,000 fee employers must pay for every foreign worker they hire.
Toronto's Elite Model Management represents international models such as American model Darla Baker, seen here backstage during Fashion Week in New York, on Sept. 10, 2007. (Bebeto Matthews/The Associated Press)

Canada's fashion industry appears to be the latest sector of the economy side-swiped by changes announced earlier this summer to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Fashion industry companies that hire foreign models say they have been lumped into the same category as employers who hire low-skilled workers in the fast-food industry.

Canadian retailers, modelling agencies, photographers and hundreds of other members of the fashion industry are calling on the federal government to expedite applications to bring in foreign models and eliminate the $1,000 fee employers must pay for every foreign worker they hire.

Alecia Bell, president of Toronto's Elite Model Management, one of the world's most prestigious modelling agencies, says she recently lost a contract worth $300,000 due to delays created by the changes, and fears the new rules will put more Canadian jobs at risk.

In an interview with CBC News, Bell explained that not receiving a work permit in time to hire a foreign model meant 25 to 35 Canadian jobs had to get cancelled — including hair and makeup artists, stylists, photographers, videographers, equipment rentals, caterers and car services. "The trickle-down effect is massive.

"These are people that rely on us for their income... while they may not work for three weeks, they have rates that are established for that one or two weeks of work that are high enough to substantiate their profession. Losing that client is devastating financially."

Bell said Canadian retailers – such as Holt Renfrew, Hudson's Bay Company, Reitmans, Suzy Shier, just to name a few – must hire foreign models for their catalogue shoots in order to compete with international retailers operating in Canada.

While Canadian clients do support and hire homegrown models, Bell said the local talent pool is small.

A second client recently told Bell it sees the $1,000 fee per foreign worker as "cost-prohibitive." Coupled with the delays in obtaining work permits, the client told her it will take a $500,000 shoot to New York at the end of August because it can't risk losing the foreign models it needs.

Bell, backed by over 150 members of the fashion industry, has requested an urgent meeting with Immigration Minister Chris Alexander. She has also written to Employment Minister Jason Kenney.

Members of the fashion industry have also launched two separate petitions, posted on Change.org, urging the government to consider the "economic hardship" the new rules are having on their business. To date, both petitions have collected 300 signatures.

High-skilled or low-skilled?

Fashion employers are the latest group to come forward with complaints the new rules are having a negative impact on their ability to hire high-skilled workers.

Groups in the tourism, health, tech and business community have also been inadvertently affected by rules intended to curb alleged abuses in the program.

Representatives of the film and TV industry met with Alexander in July, when they were given his personal assurance that work permits for foreign actors and directors would be issued in a timely manner. Employers who hire foreign musicians have managed to get an exemption from the new rules.

The government has promised to process applications within 10 business days for employers who want to hire high-skilled foreign workers.

But whether a job is considered high-skilled or low-skilled is no longer determined by a standardized list of occupations in the labour market but by whether the position falls above or below the provincial median hourly wage. 

In cities like Toronto and Montreal, hubs for the fashion industry in Canada, that rate stands at $21 in Ontario and $20 in Quebec.

The government has defended the new system calling it "more objective and accurate," but Bell said it doesn't reflect the way models are paid.

"It's not an accurate assessment of our industry at all," Bell said adding that foreign models get paid anywhere from $100 an hour to upwards of $500 an hour, not to mention they don't work a traditional 9-5 job.

"I was even further concerned that no one thought to speak with us about such a significant change."

Employers in the tourism industry, such as David Lynn, the president and CEO of the Canada West Ski Areas Association, told CBC News last month the new system is too simplistic and doesn't factor in the total compensation, including things like bonuses and gratuities.

Bell told CBC News that after repeated attempts at reaching the government, the office of Immigration Minister Chris Alexander got in touch with her to set up an upcoming meeting.

Alexander's office declined comment on this specific case, referring CBC News to Employment Minister Jason Kenney's office.

Kenney's office declined to specifically comment on the fashion industry's plea for concessions, but said the changes to the program were made after a thorough review to "ensure that employers put Canadians first and do more to recruit Canadians at home before hiring temporary foreign workers."


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