EDMONTON – Moving to the upbeat tempo of loud pop music, Ralph Umali whisks from the cash register to the stove, tossing noodles in a wok as the bright orange flames shoot up around it. He pivots, pours a noodle dish from the wok into a to-go box, throws the order in a plastic bag and dashes around the counter to deliver it to a woman waiting in the storefront.
Umaliâ€™s smile never leaves his face as he works, but his cheerful demeanour masks a serious problem that could force him out of his job and out of Canada early next year.
Umali is a temporary foreign worker at Oodle Noodle, a growing Edmonton-based restaurant chain. He has a university degree in commerce with a major in management. He worked in the food industry in Singapore and on cruise ships for years. Umali, who is Filipino, arrived in Canada in April 2013 through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and since then has been promoted to store leader at his job.
Married for 12 years, Umali has lived away from his family since 2006, working abroad to support them. The father of four children decided to come to Canada to provide needed income for his family in the Philippines.
â€œIt provides everything: education for my kids, food and shelter,â€� says Umali. â€œEverything I earn, it goes back home.â€� He says he earns well above minimum wage, but boards with friends to reduce his own expenses and maximize the amount of money he sends his family.
Canada is his dream for a better life. Umali says he hopes if he works hard, he might get permanent residency and eventually bring his wife and children to live with him. But his dream has been in jeopardy since Employment Minister Jason Kenney placed a moratorium on the program for the restaurant industry. A number of restaurants were accused of firing Canadian employees and replacing them with temporary foreign workers.
With Kenney expected to announce reforms to the program soon, Umali says he fears his visa â€” due to expire in January â€” will not be renewed.
â€œItâ€™s going to be totally back to zero,â€� says Umali, who is considering switching his profession to stay in Canada. â€œI donâ€™t know if I can work in a different industry, but the work that I do today is the one that I can be confident in, that I can do my best.â€�
Oodle Noodle president Jay Downton says heâ€™s been using the program for 18 months and the business depends on temporary foreign workers, who make up his core, full-time staff.
â€œWe were so understaffed and bringing in this program has made a world of difference for us,â€� Downton says, adding that he was constantly losing Canadian staff to other industries that could offer wages his restaurants couldnâ€™t compete with.
Kim Franklin, who co-owns Edmontonâ€™s High Level Diner, says although the majority of her staff is Canadian she has also had difficulty retaining employees.
â€œThey come, they work a while and theyâ€™ll find a job in another field, or up north,â€� says Franklin, who employs one temporary foreign worker. â€œWe are constantly running ads.â€�
She says while she understands the need to ensure Canadians arenâ€™t losing their jobs to temporary foreign workers, the federal government needs to be a more balanced solution than the current moratorium.
A permanent ban on the program for the restaurant industry is likely to hurt his business, says Downton, but it also threatens the livelihood of individuals like Umali.
When asked what the government was doing to attempt to find a fair solution for Canadians who have lost their jobs and temporary foreign workers who play by the rules, Eric Morrissette, spokesperson for the federal department of employment, wrote in an email that the government is reforming the program to ensure Canadians â€œcontinue to be given the first chance at available jobs.â€�
Restaurant staff fear impending changes to temporary foreign worker program