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ST. ALBERT, Alberta
Now that Premier Jim Prentice is working hard to induce a recession in Alberta by implementing the full Wildrose Party agenda, the tireless promoters of the use of temporary foreign workers in Alberta have grown strangely silent.
Why might that be?
At the height of the TFW debate in Canada a few months ago, one frequently repeated talking point by Canadian business groups demanding continued access to a stream of compliant, low-paid TFWs was that they'd really prefer to hire Canadians but there just weren't enough of them around.
This argument had some traction with the public here in Alberta, where oil patch jobs and a growing population, plus the demand for services to grow quickly to keep pace, were obvious to casual observers and did have a measurable impact on the ability of employers of low-pay, low-skill workers to find employees.
Here in my Alberta community, the Edmonton-area city of St. Albert, businesses demanding more and easier access to TFWs used this argument to effect, although they often hurt their own case through poor message discipline.
It never seemed to take very long for some forgetful local fast-food business owner to slip from earnestly claiming there simply weren’t enough local workers, to complaining sourly that the local bums wouldn't even turn up for interviews, to bitterly inveighing against the bad attitude, laziness and defiance of Canadian workers.
In other words, it often became pretty clear, pretty fast that what these businesses want most in a worker is fear, obedience and the willingness to work in appalling conditions for next to nothing. And our Canadian kids -- who are the supposedly lousy workers these guys were talking about -- have been raised by us not to stand for such treatment.
Presented with an argument from local newspaper readers, union groups and the like, the business community quickly resorted to threats.
A favourite was that businesses were going to have to close for lack of TFWs, putting their Canadian employees out of work too. This scenario has literally never materialized since the claim started being made, and it's said here it never will.
The other was that, quelle horreur, some fast-food restaurants would be unable to serve blotto burgers at five in the morning without TFWs prepared to work those hours to flip them. Fast-food owners seemed to think this was the nuclear option of the fast-food business, although most of us have never met anyone who has bought fast food at that hour. There's certainly no evidence it has ever happened, even once. Leastways, here on the main drag in St. Albert, the fast food joints still seem to operate around the clock.
One thing neither the TFW promoters nor any level of government pushing their use ever speak about is the deception practiced by the Harper Government of including TFW numbers in the Canada's regularly touted "job creation" statistics.
They are included, you know. So you need to ask, not just how many jobs were created in Canada at any given time, but how many of those were for Canadians.
Regardless, here we are at the beginning of 2015 and (who could have predicted this?) volatile oil prices have shown some volatility!
And thus, we have been told by our provincial political leaders, the so-called Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, that everything has changed. We must cut, cut, cut government services, government spending and government jobs.
There's going to be a lot of pain, and since we all got into this together, we’re all going to have to work together very hard to make darn sure none of that pain is felt by an oil company or a billionaire! Or, for that matter, by a fast-food restaurant owner.
Prentice has read the polls and seen that Ralph Klein, who did the same sort of thing in the mid 1990s with similarly harmful effect, remains unaccountably popular among Albertans. Maybe this is because he seemed like a convivial guy, a good person with whom to have the proverbial beer. Plus, of course, he's dead and no longer has to answer for his sins, at least on this plane.
Therefore, Prentice appears to have concluded, perhaps he can be just as popular as Klein if he does a similar amount of harm. We'll see about that, I guess, though I can't help thinking Klein's genuinely likeable personality might have had something to do with his popularity. But for the moment, at any rate, it appears to be working.
Regardless, with the oilpatch starting to shed jobs and contractors, not to mention scale back future development, in this one-industry province the impact is bound to be seen in service and supply jobs everywhere sooner than later. Prentice proposes to do the same thing to the public sector.
Economics 101 suggests the premier’s plans will ensure that we do have a recession, though that was probably inevitable anyway, and most likely make it longer and deeper than it needs to be. That is the inevitable impact of austerity.
However, it's not obvious yet -- at least to statisticians. The most recent unemployment figures, released earlier this month, showed January unemployment down marginally from December, still very low. Anecdotally, though, lots of Albertans are starting to lose their jobs.
But at least for the moment, fast-food business owners and other heavy users of TFW labour could continue to plausibly argue their need is unchanged. Yet, as noted, they have fallen strangely silent.
Ordinary Albertans, of course, know what's going on and talk about it incessantly -- often in coffee shops and restaurants staffed almost entirely by TFWs.
Predictions call for unemployment here in the Edmonton area to rise dramatically, and quickly, particularly as Prentice's planned public service job cuts start to bite.
When that happens, one impact of this is sure to be more Albertans willing, even anxious, to work in marginal fast-food jobs -- and more Albertans hurt if those kinds of jobs aren’t available. So common sense says that at this moment, when "everything has changed," the TFW program will have to change too.
What do you want to bet, though, that fast-food employers and others notorious for their lousy labour relations practices will continue to scream for access to TFWs?
And what do you want to bet that the federal Conservative government, if it manages to slip through the next federal election with its majority intact, will no longer see any reason to place even mild restrictions on the TFW program?
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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