Union expresses concern over Sunwing's proposed hiring of temporary foreign pilots

MONTREAL — A labour union is raising concerns about Sunwing's proposal to hire temporary foreign workers to address Canada's pilot shortage in preparation for the winter travel surge, arguing the airline hasn't done enough to attract local employees

Unifor, which represents 16,000 members across Canada's aviation sector, said Tuesday that Sunwing has not done enough to fill open positions locally or invest in training programs for Canadian pilots.

"To attract the pilots that are in this country, to make them want to come to Sunwing and fly, they are looking for pay, they are looking for job security, they are looking for a future with a specific airline and I don't think Sunwing has done enough," said Barret Armann, president of Unifor Local 7378.

A job posting for Sunwing pilots offered temporary foreign pilots from Europe a fixed rate of US$9,500 per month compared to Canadian first officers who are offered US$5,500 per month, while requiring less flight experience, said Armann.

He said hiring temporary foreign workers for shorter periods of time will end up costing the airline more in the long run.

Sunwing denounced the union's claims that the airline is hiring temporary foreign workers as a cheaper alternative to domestic pilots.

“Assertions being made by Unifor Local 7378 that Sunwing Airlines’ plans to hire seasonal foreign pilots as a ‘cheaper alternative’ to hiring Canadian pilots is categorically untrue," said Len Corrado, president of Sunwing, in an emailed statement.

Corrado said that Sunwing's application to hire a "small number" of foreign pilots under Canada’s temporary foreign worker program would allow the airline to meet staffing demands for travel during the winter season.

Last week, Air Line Pilots Association Canada president Tim Perry told MPs at a parliamentary committee meeting that airlines are not doing enough to retain pilots because they have resisted increasing their pay.

He said that airlines are relying on temporary foreign workers to fill the employment gap, which can raise concerns about training and safety and can undermine the collective bargaining process as a whole.

Sunwing plans to hire roughly 65 foreign temporary pilots this winter, Unifor said in a news release.

The union said it has not been informed whether a risk assessment of the use of temporary foreign pilots has been completed to Canadian labour standards.

In response, the Sunwing president said that "it is irresponsible of the union to question the qualifications of foreign pilots under the temporary foreign worker program and the safety of operations given how highly regulated both the temporary foreign worker program and Canadian aviation industry are."

Corrado said that any additional crew members must meet all regulatory requirements and standards set forth by Transport Canada and any further allegations being made by the union in this regard would be vigorously defended.

In a parliamentary committee hearing on Monday, Kaylie Tiessen, a Unifor National representative, said that the union is not opposed to foreign pilots so long as a permanent job is offered to those who would become a part of the Canadian workforce and can benefit from the collective agreement and the general protections offered to most workers in Canada.

Transport Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2022.

Caitlin Yardley, The Canadian Press