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WHITEHORSE – The Yukon government has launched a temporary foreign worker program to meet demand in mining and tourism, just weeks after more than 100 Yukon mine employees lost their jobs.
Prompted by chronic Yukon labour shortages, the new one-year pilot is designed to help local businesses facing seasonal upswings fill short-term positions when Canadian workers are unavailable. And while some small business owners, including members of Yukon’s burgeoning Filipino population, are welcoming the new program, others are questioning it in the face of widespread layoffs.
The federal government took several steps in April aimed at making it harder and less economically attractive to import temporary labour, after revelations that Royal Bank of Canada was outsourcing IT jobs and a B.C. mining company planned to import as many as 200 Chinese workers. But although Ottawa called the measures the biggest changes to the program in a decade, labour groups said they didn’t go far enough.
In Yukon, the government is moving in the opposite direction. Lauding its new foreign worker program as less onerous and more accessible than its federal counterpart, the government is promising applications will be processed within six weeks. That worries some who found themselves out of jobs this year.
“If temporary foreign workers come in, we’re not unionized, so there’s not much we can do about it,” said Percy Risby. The 58-year-old heavy equipment operator from Ross River was one of 100 workers laid off by Yukon Zinc in early July. The Chinese-owned company blames falling metal prices for the cuts. “They said it might only be temporary, but I heard they’re laying more people off in September,” Mr. Risby said.
Judy Thrower, acting assistant deputy minister, Yukon Advanced Education Branch, acknowledges the new foreign worker program has some Yukoners concerned. “After all of the reports of Canadians getting laid off and replaced by foreign workers, we are going to ensure, where appropriate or available, that local or Canadian citizens get the jobs over foreign workers,” she said. “And our program is not as broad as the federal program in that it specifically targets tourism and hospitality, oil and gas, mineral exploration and mining.”
A temporary foreign worker program is only necessary if there’s no labour available, said Yukon Chamber of Mines executive director Mike Kokiw. “But we have the labour,” he said, citing the layoffs at Yukon Zinc and Alexco Resources Corp., which cut 25 per cent of the work force at its Yukon Bellekeno mine in June. “So it’s a little bit misleading for the government to come out and say this new program is all for mining, when really it’s not. It’s more for businesses like Tim Hortons.”
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