We have a Labour Shortage Problem, Not a TFW Problem

Twice a week, I used to drive Highway #2 back and forth to Calgary, making my usual stops for McDonald’s coffee on the way down in the morning and Booster Juice on the way back. It was 2007, the economy was booming and we were at full employment. And then one day my trip home was interrupted by the following sign in a very familiar window:

“We’re sorry, but due to a lack of available staff this Booster Juice store will be closing at 3pm.”

Welcome to Alberta, circa 2007.

Fast-forward to 2014 where, having weathered the global financial storm, Alberta is back in the saddle. Full employment, rapid growth, and the same labour shortage problem that has defined the 21st century for our province, and for the Edmonton Region. Except this time around, employers in the food service industry have learned how to access the Federal Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program, in order to get the labour supply they so desperately need.

Looking around today, these business leaders are clearly managing economic growth with much more grace and professionalism than they did seven years ago. That is, until last week when Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenny unexpectedly put a freeze on all new and pending TFW applications in the food service sector.

I fully understand Minister Kenny’s frustration with the arrogance and hypocrisy shown by the Canadian CEO of McDonald’s and I support the need to penalize the handful of companies that are abusers of the program. However, an industry-wide freeze has put the growth of countless small and medium-sized businesses in Edmonton at risk. These are the entrepreneurs, job creators and taxpayers of our city and country. We need Minister Kenny to help reduce this risk, and seize the unique opportunity before him.

Based on the feedback we received from restaurant, hospitality and entertainment leaders over the past three days, the political and economic conditions are primed for Minister Kenny to demonstrate the strong leadership that this issue requires. This can be done through the following approach:

• Ensure the freeze accelerates the review of the TFW program . Don’t allow naysayers to slow down the review. Where there are problems, let us fix them quickly, together, and get things back on the rails. Set a public commitment to have the review completed by a specific date, where the results will be made public and changes communicated;

• Reinforce that abusers of the TFW program will be investigated, audited and, if found guilty, harshly punished. Employers who mistreat their employees should never been given the opportunity to do so again;

• Acknowledge that unemployment is not equally distributed across the country and that the TFWs fill an important labour shortage problem in the Alberta economy which drives economic growth and prosperity for the nation;

• Leverage the discussion on the TFW program as a platform to activate underemployed areas of our country. Let’s address the critical reforms needed to programs such as Employment Insurance – reforms that will enable more inter-provincial migration and the employment of Canadians from across the country; and

• Commit to maintaining a stable policy environment in order to allow our entrepreneurs, business owners and municipal leaders to properly plan and make investments, without the ever-present risk of changing rules and regulations.

I could have spent this blog discrediting the C.D. Howe Institute’s commentary that unfairly attributes increases in unemployment with the TFW program. I could have spent this blog discrediting the Alberta Federation of Labour’s stance that our economy can prevail without an external labour supply. I could have spent this blog talking about the poor timing of this announcement in advance of the summer tourism season where temporary workers are needed most and when TFW families come to visit. And I could have spent this blog talking about our demographics and our inability to repopulate this country without programs that stimulate immigration of new taxpaying Canadians.

But I think what is more important is that Minister Kenny address the significant barriers to inter-provincial migration which get Canadians working, the realities associated with the booming Alberta economy and the challenges to Alberta’s sustainable contribution to the federal system if it does not have access to a global labour marketplace.

It is time to start unifying our nation around economic imperatives.

Minister Kenny’s leadership is needed now.