04/30/2014 03:08 EDT | Updated 07/01/2014 05:59 EDT

TFW Program 'Will Slowly Kill' Helicopter Industry, Pilots Say

OTTAWA - Canadian helicopter pilots say they're being denied jobs in favour of cheaper temporary foreign workers as alarm bells grow ever louder about the integrity of the embattled federal program.

"The saddest and most outrageous part is that this will slowly kill the industry," Bill Wadsworth, a helicopter pilot in Mayne Island, B.C., with 25 years experience, said in an interview Wednesday.

Wadsworth said he recently applied for several jobs at B.C. companies that he learned had subsequently sought temporary foreign workers. In each case, he was told there were no openings.

He also said he frequently sees job postings for pilots that offer hourly rates well below the industry standard, a practice he said drives down wages.

"They're leveraging the foreign workers against the Canadian pilots, essentially threatening Canadians by saying: 'We're paying these guys so little and we're only going to pay you 10 dollars an hour more. So you either go with the flow here or we're hiring TFWs and you're out of work.'"

The situation provides employers with no incentives to bring along rookie Canadian pilots by providing training, Wadsworth added — a state of affairs that he warned could sound the death knell for the industry.

Story continues below

Canada's Best Jobs 2014

Kirsten Brazier, a helicopter and fixed-wing pilot in Vancouver, said employers are now telling pilots across the country that they are under-qualified in order to justify hiring cheaper temporary foreign workers.

"What the federal government is doing is enabling these operators to bamboozle the system," Brazier said.

"The worst damage to our industry is that they're using the program as a justification to disqualify pilots that are perfectly capable of doing the job."

Dozens of applications for temporary foreign workers, filed by private helicopter operators from across Canada and examined by The Canadian Press, claim the companies are unable to find domestic candidates with the necessary skills.

One company in Niagara Falls, Ont., that was looking last year to hire a seasonal pilot, simply typed "expertise" when asked on the government form why it hadn't sought a Canadian candidate. No other explanation was provided.

Gilles Hudicourt, a longtime Air Transat pilot who's spent years crusading against the temporary foreign worker program in the aviation sector, accuses federal officials of making no effort determine whether employers have sincerely tried to find Canadian workers.

"They always give shady reasons for needing TFWs; it's never valid, and no one ever checks it out," Hudicourt said.

"You have to pity the poor helicopter pilot in Canada. They are often unemployed and rely on these same operators who are hiring these temporary foreign workers for a job. Many of them are afraid to speak out, because they're going to be blacklisted and never get a job."

Greg Holbrooke, an official at the Canadian Federal Pilots Association, said he's unaware of a single instance in which a temporary foreign worker has been hired in Canada as a pilot at a wage that is higher than a Canadian's.

"In every case I'm aware of, when they bring in foreign workers to work as pilots, they pay them less money," Holbrooke said.

The beleaguered temporary foreign workers program was a hot topic of debate again Wednesday in the House of Commons.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney said the government has already beefed up the auditing might of federal inspectors who investigate whether employers are abusing the program.

"We will be proposing additional measures to even further strengthen those auditing powers, to ensure that the rules are followed and that there are very serious consequences should employers break the rules of the program, because they must always give Canadians the first crack at available jobs," he said.

Kenney has vowed to crack down further on the program after banning the food services sector from applying for TFWs following a series of abuse allegations at fast-food restaurants in recent weeks.

Nonetheless, there are other government initiatives, including the International Experience Canada program, that allow employers to hire foreign workers without a skills assessment and with no requirement to pay even minimum wage.

Wadsworth said the real tragedy of the program in the aviation industry is that young pilots need to log flying time in order to get experience.

"When you train to become a pilot you graduate or get your licence at 100 hours, but you're really no use at that point," he said.

"Bringing in temporary foreign workers takes away any motivation for Canadian companies to bring these young pilots along and provide them with training and education and hours."

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25