Inside a Big Win for Canadian Pilots
Association’s Efforts, Call to Action Result in Withdrawn TFWP Application
By Kevin Cuddihy, Contributing Writer
ALPA Canada closed the 2022 advocacy year with a major victory for Canadian workers, as its engagement with the federal government along with a robust and strong Call to Action campaign led to Sunwing Airlines withdrawing its application to hire foreign pilots through Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).
If approved, Sunwing would have gained the ability to hire foreign pilots on a temporary basis through employer-sponsored visas, rather than hiring Canadian pilots. It would have come with the implicit assumption that no Canadian pilots were available to hire—an assumption that ALPA vehemently combated.
“Not only would this have fundamentally undermined pilot collective bargaining at Sunwing,” said Capt. Tim Perry, ALPA Canada president, in a communiqué after Sunwing withdrew its application, “it would have cracked the door open to an entirely unacceptable practice and thus impacting every pilot in this country.”
The TFWP was created in 1973 “to allow employers to hire foreign nationals to fill gaps in their workforces on a temporary basis,” according to a 2016 report to Parliament regarding potential reforms. Initially aimed at the farming and nursing industry, the program has expanded and is open to all industries today—if legitimate need can be documented.
Reforms over the past decade have addressed abuses within the program, with specific items applicable to the aviation industry. After one set of reforms in 2014, Capt. Dan Adamus (Jazz Aviation), then president of ALPA’s Canada Board, praised the updates to the guidelines and commented, “The Canadian government has demonstrated its commitment to restoring the TFWP to its original stated purpose: ‘as a last and limited resource for employers when there are no qualified Canadians to fill available jobs.’”
With later reforms, as Adamus wrote in a column in the January 2018 issue of Air Line Pilot, “Parliament mandated that Canadian carriers are no longer able to staff seasonal variations in fleet capacity with foreign pilots when unemployed Canadian pilots are available. We effected positive change that ensures Canadian pilots have first dibs on Canadian jobs, which is exactly what we asked for.”
Today, a company must fill out a Labour Market Impact Assessment to determine if it’s eligible for the program. Per ALPA’s 2016 white paper “State of Our Skies: Canada,” that application must include information “such as the number of Canadians who applied for the job, the number of Canadians interviewed, and an explanation of why Canadians were not hired.”
Companies must also pay a fee for each foreign employee hired, making the program fully funded by employers. In its application last fall, Sunwing claimed a lack of qualified Canadians and stated that it wanted to hire a limited number of foreign pilots to meet staffing demands over the winter.
ALPA immediately objected, particularly to the assertion that no qualified Canadian pilots were available to fill the job. “This is a pilot attraction and retention issue, plain and simple,” stated Perry. Sunwing, ALPA alleged, was attempting to staff the airline with temporary foreign workers to replace the hundreds of pilots leaving for jobs that offer a competitive market wage.
Perry appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure, and Communities in late October 2022 to discuss temporary foreign workers in general on the heels of the pandemic.
Regarding the alleged lack of available Canadian labour, Perry stated, “Companies are simply resisting their obligations to pay the evolving market rates to attract and retain Canadian pilots.” He later remarked, “It’s improper for airlines to characterize an attraction and retention issue as a pilot shortage.” As ALPA has asserted repeatedly in both the United States and Canada, “It’s not a pilot shortage; it’s a pay shortage.”
Perry also pointed out a safety component to ALPA’s argument. “Hiring foreign pilots to address a near-term need,” he said, “has safety implications—something we never say lightly—because of differing and sometimes questionable standards, as well as longer-term supply issues as these pilots return at some point to their home countries.”
Finally, Perry raised the issue of labour rights. “We must ensure that our union’s collective bargaining rights,” he insisted, “aren’t undermined by Canadian companies relying on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, foreign wet leases, and improper partnerships with foreign operators.”
Instead of relying on the TFWP, he remarked, airlines such as Sunwing should bargain adequate incentives to attract those Canadian pilots who’ve left the country or the pilot workforce before any request for foreign pilots is made.
Perry also took the opportunity to promote government action to preclude future need for the TFWP in the industry. He suggested that the federal government “take an active role in the training and retention of Canadians” with federal funding for aviation training, and recommended the government also make aviation education “more accessible to minorities and underrepresented groups”—an early example of ALPA’s efforts toward diversity and inclusion.
ALPA Canada enlisted its members in the fight as well, announcing a Call to Action for both a letter-writing campaign and social media.
The letter-writing campaign was directed at Canada’s ministers of Employment, Transport, and Immigration, as well as local members of Parliament. ALPA pilots were asked to “demand airlines in Canada fill flight deck seats with Canadian pilots before any request to hire foreign pilots is made to the federal government,” with sample letters provided in both English and French for members to use.
At the same time, ALPA Canada provided bilingual sample messages for members to use on Twitter and Facebook, addressing Prime Minister Trudeau and their local member of Parliament with the same request.
ALPA Canada also launched a national paid social media campaign targeted at local members of Parliament, relevant government ministers, and the prime minister, asking them to help protect pilot jobs by ensuring Canada’s airlines work with labour associations, like ALPA Canada, to attract and retain Canadian pilots.
Approximately 2,000 messages were sent by pilots to their representatives opposing Sunwing’s application and supporting the job prospects of Canadian pilots. Combined with the paid campaign, the level of support was staggering.
“I’m extremely proud of our members who fought for their fellow pilots on this important topic,” said Perry. “Thank you for the overwhelming support of the thousands of our members and the traveling public, who took the time to take part in our campaigns and insist that employers in Canada must bargain fair collective agreements to fill the vacancies in Canada’s flight decks. We know your voices were heard!”
In early December, Sunwing withdrew its application to hire temporary foreign pilots. While there was no official notification regarding the application since it was withdrawn, “we can be confident that our efforts were behind the ultimate outcome,” said Perry.
ALPA remains vigilant on the topic as well. In early 2023, Sunwing claimed that a lack of pilot supply and its inability to hire the desired foreign workers were to blame for a spate of flight disruptions and cancellations. Perry quickly rebutted those claims.
“The issue of pilot supply has been used as an excuse by certain airline management groups to undermine collective bargaining rights and labour standards,” said Perry, “and to deflect from other mismanagement of labour resources. Simply put, you can’t sell more tickets than you can expect to honour.
“ALPA is deeply concerned,” he continued, “that this excuse is being used by employers in Canada, such as Sunwing Airlines, seeking to hire temporary foreign pilots instead of bargaining fair collective agreements to fill the vacancies in Canada’s flight decks.”
Capt. Jason Ambrosi, ALPA’s president, echoed that concern. “This pretext, which we see in both the United States and Canada, quite simply won’t fly,” he said. “Airlines that pay an industry wage have no trouble finding pilots. I applaud ALPA Canada and our members for standing up for their fellow aviators and ensuring that airlines can’t bypass Canadian pilots in the name of profit.”
Sunwing’s pilots are represented by Unifor, whose leaders also spoke out against the airline’s efforts. And while Sunwing pilots may become ALPA members in the future if the airline’s purchase by WestJet Airlines is finalized, Perry noted it was important to fight on their behalf no matter what. “This horse must not be allowed to leave the barn or it will negatively impact our members as well over time,” Perry commented. “After all, we each do better when we all do better.”