Legault tells companies to increase wages if they want to find workers

QUEBEC — Restaurant owners and other employers having trouble finding workers need to pay higher wages if they expect to fill those jobs, Premier Francois Legault said Wednesday in response to business demands for increased immigration.

Legault campaigned last October on reducing annual immigration amid concerns that newcomers weren't integrating properly. The premier says he's making good on his election promise, but Legault is now facing pressure from industry groups saying the policy risks aggravating labour shortages and hurting economic growth.

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Business lobbies have been telling a legislature committee holding public consultations this week on Quebec's immigration policy the government needs to significantly boost the annual rate of immigration.

A major business federation is asking for 60,000 immigrants a year — 20,000 more than the government plans on accepting in 2019. The immigration minister announced in June Quebec would aim to accept about 52,000 immigrants annually by 2022.

The Federation des chambres de commerce du Quebec says in a report presented Wednesday the province has 120,000 jobs that need to be filled, "at a time when Quebec has never had a smaller number of people available for a job since 1976."

But the premier told reporters before entering a cabinet meeting the "vast majority" of unfilled jobs in Quebec are low-paying.

"If you ask a Quebecer if they prefer a job at $15 an hour or $30 an hour it's clear they would prefer a job at $30 an hour," he said. Legault added his government was ready to help companies improve their productivity and give "added value" to jobs so they can offer higher wages. He didn't give details.

But restaurants, for example, can't automate all their services or hire only robots, said Francois Meunier, a vice-president with Quebec's association of restaurateurs.

If the government wants to help his industry, it can allow restaurant owners to force servers to share tips with other staff, which is currently illegal in Quebec. "We've been asking for that change for a while," Meunier said in an interview.

Meunier, whose association addressed the legislature committee Tuesday, said restaurants can increase wages, but people won't be happy with the consequences.

"Quebecers won't be jumping for joy when they go to a restaurant and a burger costs $50," he said. Legault, Meunier added, "needs to understand there is a demographic problem."

Quebec is currently negotiating with the federal government seeking to increase the proportion of economic immigrants it takes in and decrease the proportion of refugees and immigrants arriving through the family reunification program. The progress of those talks is unclear.

What is clear, however, is that Quebec's strong economic growth has helped trigger labour shortages across the province. Quebec also has an aging population and a declining birthrate that is below replacement levels.

Legault said his government's new immigration portal allows businesses to directly select foreign skilled workers. But for the next few years, he added, Quebec will welcome fewer people but take better care of those accepted.

"It's normal to take a step back," he said. "Because there were issues with integration ... in employment and with the knowledge of French."

— By Giuseppe Valiante in Montreal

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