As Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine unfolded in late winter, Ottawa hotelier Colin Morrison says he began searching for ways to help.
In 2015, the Ottawa Embassy Hotel and Suites had lent a hand housing Syrian refugees fleeing the country’s conflict, and with an influx of Ukrainians expected to hit the nation’s capital in the spring and summer, Morrison says he started scouring local Facebook groups with offers of help.
But as much as he was motivated to help in a crisis, Morrison says he also saw a chance to find skilled workers in the midst of a labour shortage that continues to dog Canada’s hospitality sector.
“We were among the hardest hit and we will be among the last to recover,” Morrison recalls in an interview with Global News last month.
“Ukrainian workers have been a godsend to us.”
As Canada continues to grapple with a labour shortage in the hospitality industry and beyond, experts say new policies encouraging immigration could be a win-win situation for businesses and migrant workers themselves.
Businesses seek relief to tight labour market
New data from Statistics Canada released Friday shows Canada’s labour market remains exceedingly tight.
The unemployment rate ticked down to 5.2 per cent in September, the agency said, as the economy added some 21,000 jobs and fewer people were looking for work.
The overall size of Canada’s labour force has dwindled over the summer, StatCan noted, with 79,000 fewer people either employed or looking for work since May.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) meanwhile said last week that 52 per cent of its members identified labour shortages as their biggest concern for future growth in a recent survey.
Morrison says the hospitality industry has a reputation for being a “transient” sector, which makes talent recruitment hard, especially during a labour shortage.
But a hotel also has jobs that are well-suited to newcomers, he notes.
Work behind the scenes like housekeeping was perfectly suited to Ukrainians who might not have been fluent in English, Morrison says. The hotel’s existing staff also had Russian, Italian and Romanian speakers who could help bridge gaps with those who spoke another European language.
As of the end of the summer, six Ukrainians were working at the Ottawa Embassy Hotel and Suites, representing about 10 per cent of the total workforce.
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Morrison says in one instance, a Ukrainian woman started as a housekeeper before bringing her husband in for maintenance work. Her son also joined as a housekeeper for a time before leaving to start school again.
“We had the whole family working with us,” Morrison says. “I think a greater good was served because we ended up with great employees.”
Feds lift hourly work caps on international students
The Ottawa hotel is not the only business that has lost international students in back-to-school season, but a new federal government policy announced Friday could see more employers retain young workers.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser announced Friday a lift to the limit on how much international students can work off campus, which was previously capped at 20 hours per week.
The temporary measures will start Nov. 15 and remain in place until the end of 2023, he said.
Speaking at an Ottawa coffee shop, Fraser said the move was designed to give a boost to sectors facing severe labour shortages.
Concordia University economist Moshe Lander gave the federal policy shift a “bravo” in an interview with Global News.
Lander said that with the labour market this tight, there’s not really a danger in encouraging newcomers to take on more working hours and help businesses fill vacancies — especially when the jobs are in entry-level roles that students typically work as side gigs.
“In many cases, immigrants, especially students that are coming here on student visas, they’re not taking away jobs from Canadians. They’re filling the jobs that most Canadians don’t want in the first place,” he said.
“That’s a great way to fill a lot of these shortages. And it’s also a great way to give immigrants here in this country a path towards becoming Canadian citizens.”
The decision to extend work hours for international students was welcomed by advocates, who have been calling on the federal government to scrap the rule.
“Removing the limit on hours of work while studying gives migrant student workers the power to leave bad jobs, speak up against exploitation and mistreatment, and freedom and flexibility to make decisions about their work,” said Sarom Rho, an organizer with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. She added a call to make the change permanent.
Lander said there’s a persistent “myth” in Canada that letting in more immigrants means fewer jobs for Canadians. But he counters that the more migrants Canada accepts, the more they spend and build the economy in turn, creating jobs to serve the growing demand.
Lander added that businesses opening their doors to Ukrainians and others in need of a safe landing in Canada are setting a positive example that the federal government should encourage, not only because it can help offload pressure on the labour market, but for the benefit of migrants themselves.
“It’s a shame that it requires Russia invading Ukraine to realize that, hey, there’s a world full of people out there that would love to work in Canada,” he said.
“Let them come. And I think we should be extending it a lot further than just Ukrainians. There’s a lot of people out there that need help these days.”
— with files from Global News’ Saba Aziz and Anne Gaviola