03/20/2015 12:21PM

Immigration policies could negatively affect Woodbine meet


ETOBICOKE, Ontario – Trainer Brian Lynch said he will be scaling back his operation at Woodbine this season because if he doesn’t, changes to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program would have forced him to let several long-term employees go.

Lynch, who typically maintains a stable with 45 stalls at Woodbine, said he still will keep 10 to 12 horses in Canada during the meet, but the majority of his horses will be stabled at Belmont Park.

“The crew that works for me, some of them are going on 12 years, and because I couldn’t get them up to Canada, I didn’t want to let them go,” he said. “These employees become like family to you when you work in this industry and you are with them seven days a week. It was just one of those issues where I wasn’t going to turn help loose when they’ve been with me for that long.”

The Canadian government announced an overhaul of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program last June, and according to Sue Leslie, president of the Horsemen’s Protective and Benevolent Association of Ontario, strict regulations on hiring foreign workers in Canada are causing issues for a number of horsemen and could significantly impact the horse population at Woodbine.

Leslie said positions within the province’s horse-racing industry are now considered lower-skilled occupations under the federal government’s National Occupation Classification system, which defines lower-skilled occupations as those that usually require at most a high school diploma or a maximum of two years of job-specific training.

“The fact is, exercise riders and grooms are not low-skilled,” Leslie said. “The problem is trying to educate someone that doesn’t understand a racehorse. It doesn’t seem that complex to them to find someone or teach someone to be an exercise rider or a groom, but that’s so far from the truth.”

As part of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, employers who want to hire a foreign worker for lower-skilled occupations must demonstrate a shortage of Canadians for the position, pay a $1,000, nonrefundable application fee for each foreign worker – up from $275 in 2014 – and cap the number of foreign workers to 20 percent of their total work force by July 1, with the cap decreasing to 10 percent by July 1, 2016.

Leslie said notices were sent to trainers about the changes to the program last fall, but the HBPA could not have anticipated the extreme nature of the regulations at that point.

“There was no indication at that time that the leap from where we were at was going to be where we ended up,” she said. “We knew they were going to tighten up, but they’ve taken it to such a level now. [The horsemen] want to hire Canadians, but they aren’t there to be had.”

Along with Lynch, several of Woodbine’s larger stables are having trouble gaining approval for a number of employees who have not had issues working at Woodbine in the past. Among those is six-time Sovereign Award-winning trainer Mark Casse, who also has 45 stalls at Woodbine and rents a farm in Ontario to stable additional horses during the racing season.

“We have [had employees’ applications denied],” he said. “We’re going to apply some more. I haven’t heard whether they’ve been denied, but we’re expecting them to be. It makes it very difficult, and in fact, it could limit the number of horses we send to [Woodbine]. Right now, we don’t have the help to even handle 45 horses.”

Casse said he has received applications from Canadians to fill out his staff at Woodbine, but very few applicants have turned out to be qualified candidates.

“We get a lot of applications, but very few seriously want jobs,” he said.

Leslie said that both the HBPA and Woodbine are in constant contact with provincial officials to resolve the issue, but those officials are seeking clarification on the regulations of the new program from federal officials.

“The problem is we can’t get the issue up the ladder quick enough in order for them to make a decision,” she said.

Leslie added that the horse-racing industry isn’t the only industry affected by the changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

“We know it’s a hardship for our trainers, and it’s going to be a problem on the backside,” she said. “I don’t know what more we can do. We’re doing all we can. We’re not giving up.”

Lynch said he would welcome a full return to Woodbine if the issue can be resolved.

“I have a condo up there, and I’ve built a business around being based at Woodbine,” he said. “It’s a big hit for me.”