CAMBRIDGE, Ont. – Drivers, technicians and office staff at Challenger Motor Freight had a big surprise Dec. 17, as Ontario Premier Doug Ford and other provincial officials visited the company.
The visit was kept secret from most employees, due to security concerns. However, the Premier walked through the entire facility, shaking hands and posing for pictures with staff. He even got to climb behind the wheel of a truck, smiling broadly from behind the wheel. The Premier was accompanied by Minister of Transportation, Jeff Yurek, and Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, Todd Smith.
Ford was a guest of Challenger Motor Freight executives, who then had the opportunity to brief him on key industry issues. Ontario Trucking Association president Stephen Laskowski, and chairman David Carruth of One for Freight, were also present.
The skilled labor shortage was the main topic discussed during the meeting that followed the tour, and specifically the Driver Inc. employment model that has become widespread in Ontario. The model, now condemned by the federal Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada, has provincial implications as well, as the loophole is thought to protect employees and employers from federal and provincial tax obligations.
Dan Einwechter, founder and chairman of Challenger, told Ford that trucking companies that have adopted the Driver Inc. model are skipping out on WSIB payments to the province. He estimated the model is costing the federal and provincial governments $600 million to $1 billion per year across the country.
“Some of that is federal, but a lot of that is provincial,” Einwechter explained, noting one 1,000-truck fleet he knows of is saving about $12 million in tax payments by exploiting the loophole.
In addition to calling for a crackdown on Driver Inc., Einwechter also appealed to Ford to allow the trucking industry to tap into immigration to address its dire labor shortage. He would like to see the Ontario Foreign Worker program re-opened.
“It’s hard to get drivers to move trucks,” Einwechter said. “In some ways, that’s good for us, because that’s a restrictor and our rates go up. But as a citizen, it’s not good. We are out of balance right now in terms of supply and demand. We need more drivers because we need to get grocery store shelves stocked, we need to get food on the table and we need to get computers for kids at school and hospital beds for grandma at the hospital.”
Einwechter said Challenger has had success with the foreign worker program in the past, and at one time about 80 of its 1,600 or so drivers were recruited through it.
“They were wonderfully skilled people,” he said. “Some federal decisions were made and they got shooed away.”
Einwechter invited Ford to create a trial program, and volunteered to participate.
“I’m extremely proud of what we’d do here and how we’d administer it,” Einwechter said.
Laskowski agreed, and called on Ford to extend the foreign worker program that’s available to the construction industry, to trucking.
“That pilot program in Ontario right now that’s working for the construction industry – we want to be a part of it,” he said. “We also need to protect people coming into Canada, to ensure they’re not going to an employer that is not going to give them the rights they deserve as an employee. We need some labor. I have a member in Northern Ontario that has 20 trucks parked on the side of the fence, not because he can’t get the loads to move, he can’t get drivers. That’s not good for Ontario, it’s not good for the economy, and it’s not good for our sector.”
Carruth said even small carriers would benefit from the program.
“For us, we’re always looking for five drivers,” he said. “A program like this, although it’s only five drivers, would help us as a small carrier to bring in Canadians who want to be here.”
And they’re high-paying jobs, Carruth added, noting One for Freight’s local drivers earn at least $75,000 a year and longhaul drivers a minimum of $85,000.
Ford said the labor shortage is not unique to trucking.
“We are hearing this in every single industry, everywhere we go,” the Premier said. “I’ve heard it at my own company in the printing business. It’s a lack of qualified people and retention.”
Trucking officials at the meeting also called for more enforcement across the industry.
“Our main message to the government is, we want to help,” Laskowski said. “We don’t expect handouts, all we expect is a level playing field…how to level the playing field without costing you a dollar.”
He pointed out every restaurant in the province faces health inspections, yet more than 90% of the province’s trucking companies have never been audited. Einwechter reiterated that the province shouldn’t have to shoulder the cost of increased enforcement.
“We are asking for something, but as an industry, we have to be committed to doing the training ourselves,” he said. “We have to throw money at it – we can’t just say ‘We want, we need,’ we have to show…we’ve done it here. We spend a ton on training and we’re prepared to do more.”
Laskowski agreed: “We want to see everyone get some form of (inspection) and the industry pays for it, not the taxpayer. This is a for-profit industry and the cost of it should be borne by the industry.”
Ford listened attentively throughout the 30-minute briefing, and promised to get back to the industry with some solutions in the new year. He also called on the industry to help the province identify red tape and redundant regulations that can be eliminated.
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