Prentice says time becoming critical factor in Alberta’s worker shortage

EDMONTON – Alberta Premier Jim Prentice says time is becoming a critical factor in solving the temporary foreign worker shortage, but he dismissed criticism that an exploitative province is to blame.

“I’ve never agreed with the suggestion that really this is about Alberta business people trying to underpay. That is not my experience. That’s not what I’ve heard. That’s not what I’ve seen,” Prentice said in an interview.

“To be sure, there are always going to be people taking advantage of any government program.

“But by and large the employers I’ve met across Alberta just want hands and feet. They just want people to fulfil these jobs.

“They’re quite prepared in most of the cases I’ve seen to pay a premium to get people here. They just can’t find people given the red hot economy.”

Prentice plans soon to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss, among other issues, the temporary foreign worker changes that he says have hit Alberta’s roaring economy hard.

In June, Harper’s government brought in rules to limit the number of foreign workers that large and medium-sized companies can hire, to ensure Canadians are first in line for jobs.

Alberta and its oilsands engine have led the nation in growth during the past 20 years. Despite 100,000 newcomers a year, Alberta has grown heavily reliant on temporary foreign workers.

As of December 2012, there were more than 68,000 temporary foreign workers in Alberta — 20 per cent of the Canadian total.

Prentice said rule changes are starting to hit home, particularly in rural areas and in agriculture.

“People are becoming more concerned about (the worker shortage) because (a crisis) is more imminent,” said Prentice.

“In the areas like the packing plants, (the shortage) is going to back up from the slaughterhouses to the farm gates.”

Prentice is not the only western leader expressing concerns.

This week, B.C. Premier Christy Clark told the province’s business community that training young people and wooing skilled workers from other provinces simply won’t be enough to meet the labour needs of her envisioned liquefied natural gas industry.

However federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney reaffirmed to a conference in Ottawa Thursday that there will not be any changes to the June rules.

Kenney said that in Alberta the program has been “overused.” He noted that wages in the fast-food sector have not kept up with the rate of inflation.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says the temporary foreign worker program — far from bolstering the labour situation — has been a catalyst for placing downward pressure on wages.

Last week, the AFL presented examples of various Alberta companies getting the green light to bring in temporary foreign workers despite paying wages substantially below the prevailing rate.

McGowan, in an interview, said it becomes self-fulfilling economic principle: underpaid foreign workers drive down wages down across the board, serving as a disincentive for Canadians to take those jobs, in turn creating a demand for even more temporary foreign workers.

“The federal government through its temporary foreign worker program has been helping low-wage employers keep wages low even when economic conditions suggest the wages should be going up,” said McGowan.

“We don’t think that’s the kind of business that any government should be in.”

Kenney has suggested the impact on the changes in Alberta have been overstated.

He said when the new limits are fully implemented in 2016, it will be the equivalent of Alberta losing just 8,000 low paid jobs relative to 2013, less than one per cent of the province’s workforce.