Ukrainians fleeing war help ease Manitoba's labour shortage

Ukrainians fleeing war help ease Manitoba's labour shortage

As a long-time musician on cruise ships, Konstantin Rolyk was more used to holding a saxophone in his hands than a cement drill. But on this day, as the temperature hovers around -25 C in Winnipeg, Rolyk is working hard to get ready for the cement trucks scheduled to arrive and pour the foundation for the new residential apartments he is helping to build.

"The job here is a chance to start your life again," said Rolyk, 36, who arrived in Canada from Ukraine in November last year with his wife and two children. "It's a new step. I've never worked this kind of position before."

As the only breadwinner in his household, Rolyk said his job with S&J Construction means he and his family can survive in a new country.

But what's surprising is how high the stakes are for his foreman, Fillipo Rizutto, as well.

"With the pandemic and everything, in the last few years we've had a labour shortage here in Winnipeg – especially with trades," he said.

Rizutto explained that a regular crew should have 20 workers, but in recent years he's typically been working with half that number.

That is until now.

"I have 12 Ukrainians working with us right now," Rizutto said. "If we didn't have them here, I don't know what we would be doing as far as the schedule and keeping the site up and making targets."

John Garcea started S&J Construction with his father – who came to Canada from Italy in 1968 – and grew it into one of the biggest construction companies in Manitoba. He said the difficulty he's had finding workers over the past few years has meant lost revenue.

Nick Purdon/CBC
Nick Purdon/CBC

"We were given projects that we could have started, and just because of a shortage of labour I wouldn't be able to promise you the finish date or the start date," Garcea said. "So I'd have to give a contract back."

Garcea believes that the 50 recently arrived Ukrainians his company has hired will change that.

"It's sad, in that they had to be forced to come to Canada and into Manitoba because of a war," Garcea said. "But it feels good to employ them, because we would have never had a chance — and in a short period of time — to employ 50 people to actually come and be willing to train and work in our field."

Since the start of 2022, more than 175,000 Ukrainian nationals have come to Canada. Roughly 12 per cent of them have settled in Manitoba, according to the provincial government – per capita that's more than any other province.

Ukrainian nationals can apply for an open work permit which allows them to work for up to three years. As for the special emergency program that allows Ukrainians to come to Canada and stay for the same period of time, it is set to expire at the end of March and the federal government hasn't announced if it will be extended.

Nick Purdon/CBC
Nick Purdon/CBC

Garcea has more immediate concerns – like getting his new employees trained and ready to work.

"It's no secret these people are coming with nothing. So we help them get set up. We may buy them the clothes they need – safety clothes, boots. We've given some food vouchers. I mean, some of them are coming to my office with nothing. So we want to get involved and help them with whatever we can."

And Garcea hopes some of them will decide to stay even when the war ends.

Foreman Rizutto agrees, adding that the new Ukrainian workers haven't just helped him meet deadlines – they've become close. At Thanksgiving he welcomed more than a dozen newly arrived Ukrainians to his house to celebrate the holiday.

He said spending the past few months together has also made the war in Ukraine personal for him.

"I don't need to watch it on TV because I hear it every day from my guys," Rizutto said.  "They're on the phone with their families and friends and they tell me 'missiles are coming down, the Russians are doing this.' So it hits you. It hits you pretty good."

Impromptu employment office 

These days the ground floor office of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress in Winnipeg has been transformed into a kind of employment agency.

Kathy Landygo runs things here. She has a database of résumés from recently arrived Ukrainians and works to match them with employers. Landygo has placed hundreds of Ukrainians in jobs that Manitoba businesses have been trying to fill for years.

"Ukrainians are coming to Canada for help. We step up and we're helping them," Landygo said. "But what we really didn't know is how much Canada really needed Ukrainians."

Landygo recently retired from Bell Canada after a 38-year career. Now she volunteers for more than 50 hours a week at the Ukrainian Congress office.

Nick Purdon/CBC
Nick Purdon/CBC

She has a personal reason to help. Her grandfather came to Canada from Ukraine 90 years ago during the Holodomor — a genocide engineered by Stalinist leaders to starve Ukrainians and crush the country's independence movement. More than four million Ukrainians died at the time, but Landygo's grandfather made it to Canada.

"I think of my grandfather every day. The stories of him coming to Canada on a ship with nothing but the clothes on his back and one suitcase," she said. "That's what drives me every day to come here and volunteer."

Landygo said about 75 Ukrainian families arrive in Winnipeg each week escaping the current conflict with Russia, and many of them need work.

People like Mariia Triehubova.

The 22 year-old explains to Landygo how her house was destroyed on the first day of the war. Triehubova and her husband fled with whatever they could carry. They arrived in Winnipeg in December, 2022.

Nick Purdon/CBC
Nick Purdon/CBC

Due to the shortage of nurses in Manitoba, Landygo was able to help Triehubova get fast-tracked into a foreign nurses training program at Red River College Polytechnic in Winnipeg.

Triehubova said she wants to stay in Canada even after the war is over.

"I'm dreaming that I can be a certified nurse," said Triehubova, "that I can work here, I can help people, I can be useful. You know, I can be useful to this city."

One-stop shop

In the basement of the same building where Landygo helps people find work, the Ukrainian National Federation runs an aid centre.

What used to be a kind of party space with a dance floor and a bar is now packed with donations for newly arrived Ukrainian families. There are racks of clothes, and shelves filled with most of the essential housewares people need to start their lives again.

Liliia Yakovenko sorts through boxes and arranges children's clothes on their hangers. She said she volunteers here because she knows how important this place is. She and her husband, along with their seven children, arrived in Winnipeg in late November last year, and got everything they needed to start again.

Nick Purdon/CBC
Nick Purdon/CBC

"This help was incredible, because without this help I would be lost," said Yakovenko. "That's why I wanted to pay back for the help I received."

Yakovenko, who had a 10-year career in an international bank in Ukraine, found a job through the Ukrainian National Federation Help Centre – she now works at a grocery store.

"Nowadays a job means for me more than just a simple job. It means for me stability, safety. It's very, very important for us," she said.

Yakovenko says she is thankful that she and her husband escaped the war and made it to Manitoba.

"Now I know that our kids can go to school every day and they will not be killed there. They can sleep normally."

Fully staffed for the first time in a decade

If you are Ukrainian and you live in Winnipeg, you probably shop at the Sausage Makers Delicatessen Meat Market – a local butcher shop that has become a kind of community hub over the years.

Manager Daria Zozulia, 37, came to Canada from Ukraine in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea. She said she can't believe the current conflict has already lasted a year.

"Lots of death, lots of tragedy, lots of loss," she said. "So we just hope and pray that it will end sooner than later and less people will die."

Nick Purdon/CBC
Nick Purdon/CBC

Zozulia said the war has meant a new wave of Ukrainians coming to the butcher shop.

She has hired 10 of them to work for her, including Dmytro, who escaped the war and now makes sausages and prepares other meats for sale.

The recent arrivals need work, but Zozulia explains how much she needs them as well.

"With all the Ukrainians that came, we are fully staffed. It's never been, I think in the last 10 years – we've never been full of staff like we are right now," she said.

Nick Purdon/CBC
Nick Purdon/CBC

One of the new hires Zozulia made just a few weeks ago was Iryna Kopei.

"She came in and put her résumé down," said Zozulia with a smile. "And she said 'I need a job now. I'm ready to start tomorrow. I want to work. I need work. I am able to work.' And I said OK, OK, you can start tomorrow."

Kopei, 38, was a teacher in Ukraine. Kopei said she and her husband and their children barely made it out of the country alive.

At the butcher shop Kopei said she didn't just find a job but a place where she belongs – and a friend too.

Nick Purdon/CBC
Nick Purdon/CBC

"Daria – she is amazing," Kopei said. "She really helps us, and not like a manager, not like a boss, like a friend. Daria is my friend."

In just a few months Kopei and many other Ukrainians have gone from fleeing war to having a future again – and helping Canadians along the way.

"Right now, my family has a normal life. I'm working, and my children go to school," she said. "We don't have a lot of money, but we have enough for living."

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