Businesses in the Sea to Sky Corridor will soon have a chance to share their thoughts regarding changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) with the federal minister behind the changes.
The Whistler and Squamish chambers of commerce are hosting a luncheon featuring the minister of employment and social development, Jason Kenney, on Wednesday, Aug. 6 at the Cheakamus Centre in Squamish.
"This is such an urgent issue for our region," said Whistler Chamber CEO Val Litwin, citing three primary concerns with recent changes made to the program.
The chamber's concerns involve fees associated with the Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA), "restrictive" updates to the program and how often and where unemployment is measured.
"In regions where you have unemployment over six per cent, you can't be putting in applications for certain low-wage positions through the TFWP," Litwin said, adding that many of these types of positions are key tourism jobs that Whistler relies on.
Whistler's unemployment rate is "very likely" under six per cent, he said, but the way the program is currently set up — using a 2013 average of 6.7 per cent for the region — Whistler businesses are restricted in their use of foreign workers.
"If you look at the numbers from Statistics Canada and their labour force surveys right now, our whole region — so mainland southwest (which includes Metropolitan Vancouver) — is actually sitting at 5.7 (per cent) for June," he said.
"But the way the program is set up, we're actually, according to the program, at a 6.7 (per cent), so we actually can't participate in the way that we'd like to participate."
A survey of Whistler Chamber members found that 61.5 per cent of respondents hired a temporary foreign worker in the last year, Litwin said.
"Our position is, we use it as a limited and last resort, but it has to be one of the mechanisms we have access to," he said.
Next week's luncheon offers the chambers, and others, a rare opportunity to speak directly to the federal government about the importance of the program to the region.
"We're driving 22.5 per cent of the tourism export revenue for the province, and we're contributing $1.1 million a day in daily tax revenue for the federal, provincial and municipal governments," Litwin said of Whistler.
"So you know, you've got a region in B.C. that's contributing so much to the tax coffers, and now you're going to take away one of the key mechanisms that allows us to staff up our businesses. It will have ramifications."
Litwin hopes for flexibility regarding LMIA fees and the number of temporary foreign workers allowed to work at a business, which will be phased down to 10 per cent of a business's workforce by July 2016.
"I would say for a community like Whistler, we would look for allowances around that cap," Litwin said, adding that 36 per cent of chamber members surveyed said that temporary foreign workers make up over 30 per cent of their workforce.
"So (if) you move to a 10-per-cent cap we're talking major impact to the businesses," he said.
Litwin would also like to have a conversation with the minister regarding how unemployment rates are calculated.
Wednesday's luncheon has room for 150 people, with registration now available on the Whistler Chamber of Commerce website at www.whistlerchamber.com/Events/Special-Luncheon.