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Overhaul of foreign worker program may delay new restaurant

Changes Will have 'massive negative impact' on Whistler business: Chamber



A popular Whistler Mexican restaurant may have to temporarily shelve its plans for expansion due to the most recent changes to Ottawa's controversial Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program.

"We already have plans in mind to keep growing, and part of that growth requires bringing in qualified Mexican chefs who can contribute to that culinary and cultural experience here in Canada," said Pepe Barajas, the general manager of The Mexican Corner.

The new changes to the program include a limit to the amount of TFWs large and medium-sized companies can employ, stiffer penalties for businesses found in violation of the new rules, and a major hike to fees employers must pay to bring in foreign workers — the fees for Labour Market Impact Assessments (formerly Labour Market Opinions) have jumped from $275 per application to $1,000.

The changes mean that the opening of Mexican Corner's sister restaurant, La Cantina, slated for mid-July, will likely be delayed.

"Now we have to reassess our plans for growth because we have the money to invest and the managers, but if we don't have the people to execute those plans then obviously we're not going to invest," said Barajas.

He was especially critical of a new rule that says companies with more than 10 employees must cap the number of low-wage foreigners they can hire at 30 per cent of its staff — a ratio that will fall to 10 per cent in 2016.

"Well, 10 per cent wouldn't give me enough people to produce Mexican food in our kitchen," said Barajas, adding that the company has broadened its search for a chef trained in this cuisine nationwide, but so far there have been no viable candidates.

Employing Mexican chefs is an important part of a successful authentic experience, said Barajas, one that is hard to replicate for those who weren't steeped in Mexican culinary traditions and practices.

"We have a specialized ethnic cuisine and you need to be really familiar with that type of cuisine (to prepare it)," he said. "Most of our ingredients are native to Mexico, therefore even if we have skilled chefs, they won't be familiar with the ingredients and they won't know what the food is supposed to taste like."

Whistler's business community is lambasting the most recent reforms to the controversial program, with concerns rising that the sweeping changes will especially hamper the resort's service sector.

"The Whistler Chamber (of Commerce) is very concerned the scope of the federal government's changes to the TFWP will have a massive negative impact on Whistler businesses — the program modifications are too restrictive and costly," wrote Chamber CEO Val Litwin in an email.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney announced a "top-to-bottom" overhaul of the program earlier this month, designed to make it tougher for employers to hire temporary foreign workers. The move came two months after the federal government imposed a freeze on foreign workers in the food services industry following claims that some McDonald's franchises were hiring too many low-paid labourers through the program. The freeze was lifted last week.

"Obviously there have been some very bad circumstances where the program was not correctly applied, but it strikes me that what the government has done now is a significant overreaction to the issue," said Stephen Webb, chair of the Hotel Association of Whistler. He also said that TFW's are "certainly a source of talent" for the resort's hotel industry.

Litwin is particularly worried about the new Labour Market Impact Assessment costs, which nearly quadrupled with Ottawa's announced updates.

"...(The) increase... will effectively prohibit many service industry businesses from participating in the program," he wrote.

In Whistler, where the service industry relies heavily on TFWs, the changes could have a devastating impact. A recent survey found that 62 per cent of Whistler Chamber members hired TFWs in the last year, while 25 per cent hired over 15 temporary foreign workers in the last winter season alone.

Under the updated program, workers will be considered low-wage if they are paid less than the reported provincial median wage. In B.C., that number is $21.79 an hour. Litwin predicted the new classification system will "wreak havoc" on business models across the resort and "prevent us from delivering the service experience our guests have come to expect."

The Canadian, B.C. and Whistler chambers intend to lobby the federal government to review and amend the changes.

There were roughly 386,000 temporary foreign workers employed across Canada in 2013.