Companies & Industries

Alberta restaurants' reliance on foreign help may be locking out locals

Alberta's new minimum wage slaves

(Peter Power/GetStock)

(Peter Power/GetStock)

Flipping meat and waiting on tables never offered a road to riches, but it at least provided generations of young Canadians with their first jobs.

That’s no longer the case, or less so, in Alberta. Instead, such activities seem to be providing first Canadian jobs for foreigners. More than half of the 243 employers in the province permitted to hire temporary foreign workers at minimum wage over a 10-month period ended in June were in the food-service business, the Alberta Federation of Labour found recently through a freedom-of-information request. They included big chains like Boston Pizza, Earls, Swiss Chalet, East Side Mario’s and Pizza Hut.

The revelation gives credence to the possibility, raised earlier this year by ex-Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, that the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program is not just filling gaps in the nation’s skill set but distorting labour markets. “A significant number of employers are using the Temporary Foreign Worker Program as a tool to suppress wages,” AFL president Gil McGowan charges. “When guest workers are exploited, which is exactly what’s happening here, it lowers the floor for everyone.”

wage-chartConsider that Alberta’s unemployment rate, at 4.8%, is the second lowest among the provinces. Conventional economic thinking suggests restaurants would respond by raising wages to compete for talent. That’s happened in other industries; average hourly earnings are significantly higher in Alberta than in any other province. But a search of job postings this summer for servers in Calgary and Edmonton showed the vast majority of employers offered $10 an hour or less. That’s lower than what’s offered in Halifax or Fredericton, where minimum wages are higher. So it seems some Albertan restaurants have discovered an alternative source of cheap workers.

The practice’s prevalence is disputed. The AFL believes many low-wage employers now make the TFWP a centrepiece of their recruitment strategy. But Joyce Reynolds, executive vice-president of government affairs for the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, says just 26,000 (or 2.4%) of her industry’s 1.1 million workers nationwide are temporary foreign workers—most of them found in small communities in Western Canada. Temporary foreign workers are the last resort, she says. The approval process is expensive and time-consuming.

The only common ground is that restaurants will increasingly seek temporary foreign workers as the pool of young Canadians dwindles in the face of demographic forces. Kevin McQuillan, a professor at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, warns that by artificially lowering wages, the TFWP may squelch labour mobility. “You might pick up and leave New Brunswick to work in the oilsands for $24 an hour,” he says, “but you’re not going to do that for $9.75 in a Tim Hortons.”