The president of the BC Federation of Labour is speaking out against Whistler's campaign for exemptions in the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), claiming the resort community has "developed a business model that's totally dependant on temporary foreign workers."
"If employers can manage to recruit people in Australia, they can recruit people in Abbotsford," said federation president Jim Sinclair in an interview this week.
"I just think, and this is where (federal employment minister) Jason Kenney and I might agree, that this has just become (its) model of work because these people are indentured.
"They have no ability, really, to leave their employer, and that's not how Canada was built, I'm sorry."
There are 150,000 people unemployed in B.C. alone, Sinclair said, and the youth unemployment rate is 10 to 12 per cent.
"If you provide opportunities for people in Whistler, and accommodation, which is what you provide for temporary foreign workers, then I'm sure you won't have any problem attracting people," he said.
"And if there's a wage shortage, then solve that problem. All these free-market folks, well, let the free market decide that one, instead of using temporary foreign workers to lower wages."
Whistler Chamber of Commerce CEO Val Litwin said Sinclair's assertion about Whistler's current business model is simply not true.
"We have a very different perspective, and I think if you operate up here you'll understand that's not our reality up here," he said. "We live in a seasonal resort, we just don't attract the number of Canadians (we need), and Whistler has a track record of being very proactive and very innovative in its recruiting of Canadians."
The TFWP is not a "silver bullet" for the resort, Litwin said, but one piece of the resort's employment strategy.
"We've been very clear with businesses... you need to go to extraordinary lengths to attract Canadians, you need to look at your wages and make sure you're offering a competitive, livable wage," he said.
The majority of comments on media stories about Whistler's bid for exemption seem to agree with Sinclair's comments about the need to offer better wages, and Litwin said the chamber agrees with those comments as well.
"It's one of the strategies (businesses) should be considering, absolutely, to attract workers," he said.
"So I don't see that we have a divergent opinion with some of those people that are making comments."
Last week, Litwin met with Shirley Bond, minister of jobs, trade and tourism with the province.
"I think it was a very productive meeting... I think it just really resonated with her that from a Whistler perspective, this is not our only avenue for recruiting workers," Litwin said.
"We always try to put Canadians first, and Whistler as a community has a terrific track record of being very innovative about our recruiting tactics within Canada."
In terms of an all-out exception for Whistler to the changes to the TFWP, so far the chamber has made little progress.
"Where we've sort of landed right now is there's two main points we're sort of pushing for," Litwin said.
"One is that we get accurate labour market data for Whistler, which we are very certain we are below that six per cent threshold... and the second point is the ($1,000 application) fee."
Using the accurate unemployment rate for Whistler — believed by the chamber to be closer to two per cent — businesses would be free to recruit temporary foreign workers.
They would still be required to pay the $1,000 application fee, and be restricted in how many temporary foreign workers they employ.
"Of course we think (the fee) is excessive, and it really makes the program prohibitive to virtually all small business," Litwin said.
"But what we're saying is... let's look at options within that, like longer validity periods (or) pro-rating the fee."