Jason Kenney has an abiding faith in this country’s small businesses and young Canadian workers.
One or both is almost certain to let him down.
Under his radical overhaul of a badly flawed temporary foreign worker program, the Kenney plan envisions small business on a recruiting binge, going to First Nations and reaching out to Canadians who are physically challenged, offering them jobs with better wages.
In turn, young Canadians will jump at the opportunity to sling java at the country’s drive-throughs.
But independent business is so far too busy declaring itself appalled at the employment minister to get around to talking about recruiting or bumping up wages.
Is this blind faith in the market from the self-described “free market guy?”
“It’s supply and demand,” Kenney says.
In some European countries, counter staff earn $25 per hour. Yes, you pay more for your burger and drink, but the entire Western world functions according to these market strictures without government intervention, he said in an interview.
“Before this program existed, we had boom cycles in boom towns and somehow they managed to get by without resorting to significant numbers of lower-paid foreign workers.”
His own numbers show how badly addicted small business became to this program. Kenney and his Conservatives were pushing the foreign worker drug and now they are demanding these businesses kick the habit virtually cold turkey.
Your coffee is going to get pricier and it’s going to be tougher to grab a burger after midnight, at least in Western Canada. That does not constitute a national crisis.
But young Canadians?
Many have complained that their initial employment step is blocked by temporary foreign workers, so this will be a test of the small business argument that they don’t really want these jobs.
We will find out how many are actually thirsting for those late-night, entry-level jobs shovelling fries.
Kenney has also essentially killed the low-wage foreign worker program in big cities, by outlawing it in areas with unemployment rates higher than six per cent. “There’s absolutely no reason a fast food operator in an area of more than a million people with, as in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), a youth unemployment rate of 20 per cent, should be bringing in temporary foreign workers,” he told me. “The Tim Hortons in the GTA? They don’t need any help from the government.”
Only about 1,000 positions will be eliminated across the country under this provision, but he says it sends a clear message to employers — “don’t bother.”
The most stunning number of the many his department provided was that 1,123 employers in this country had more than 50 per cent of their workforces made up of temporary foreign workers.
In other words, as Kenney conceded, they were using the program as a business model, not using the program as it was designed, as a means of last resort.
Businesses were spending more than $1 million to start up operations in communities where there were no workers, then getting on the phone and leaning on the government to bail them out and find them some workers.
Kenney agreed the program was driving down wages — something labour and the NDP had long argued — and he had the numbers in Alberta to back it up. Over the past seven years, Alberta’s median hourly wage rose 31 per cent, the provincial consumer price index rose about 15 per cent, but the median hourly wage in the province in the accommodation and food service sector rose a mere eight per cent.
At one point, Kenney lamented: “Why would you fly people in from Thailand to do a job in P.E.I. when there are people out of work and receiving EI benefits a 30-minute drive away?”
The answer is: because the government let them.
Kenney said he would have refused to begin this low-wage program had he been in power when the Liberals introduced it in 2002, but it grew like topsy under his watch and he concedes he was losing the political battle over a program that had become an embarrassment.
When his department polled Canadians, they found the country believed that 12 per cent of this country’s workers were foreign and temporary. The actual figure is 1.2 per cent.
There will be no sympathy for small business here. They abused the program and now they are paying the price.
But this will be a severe test of the marketplace, particularly in Kenney’s home province of Alberta, where there are dire predictions of job shortages.
It may indeed be simply a matter of supply and demand, as Kenney says, but as the chief pusher of the cheap worker, he has a lot of faith in this trip to rehab for small business in Canada.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at email@example.com Twitter:@nutgraf1.