Jobs rumour brings 15,000 out in snow The men who survived the swirling waters of storm-lashed California

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Canada has been shocked by the spectacle of 15,000 job-seekers shivering in -20C cold this week because of a rumour that General Motors might increase production at a Toronto plant.

The seemingly desperate crowd that materialised over-night stunned GM officials, jammed traffic and appeared to give the lie to the boasts of the Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, that the Canadian economy is growing strongly again and that the country's high standard of living will be his main ammunition against Quebec separatists.

Many of the would-be job applicants had spent the night in a car park huddled around braziers. Julia Gordon, 33, joined the queue at 7am with her five-month old daughter. Before she took maternity leave, she was a long-distance lorry driver but now, as asingle parent, she wants a job close to home.

One man whose contract with a Saskatchewan company expires in March spent C$1,100 (£512) for the 2,000-mile flight from Regina to queue. Shaun Godrey, 28, had learnt from his two brothers-in-law, who already work for GM, that the company was so busy it was considering a third shift.

GM would not confirm the rumour. The company is only saying it had set up a temporary office "to identify a pool of candidates in case future vacancies become available".

The overwhelming response is seen as evidence that the country is still suffering severely from the recession, despite the highest official growth figures of any of the seven leading industrial countries in the last year (4.1 per cent), and that people are prepared to go to great lengths for a chance at top-paying jobs in the motor industry. The starting pay at GM is C$22 an hour, compared with the average industrial wage of about C$14.

Canada has consistently ranked at the top of the United Nations quality of life index and the current recovery has reduced the unemployment rate from 11 per cent in 1992 to about 9.5 per cent. But that still means about a million adult Canadians looking for jobs. As one of the applicants said, if GM eventually hires 1,000 of the 15,000 people who applied, "it's much better odds than we get in the government lottery."

But business analysts are putting a more positive spin on the incident. They say it is a reflection of the health of the Canadian car industry, which serves as a catalyst for the whole manufacturing sector, especially in Ontario and Quebec. Canada is reaping the benefits of dramatic increases in North American car sales in the last two years, and in 1992 overtook Japan as the largest exporter of motor vehicles to the US.

Canadian plants in the integrated operations of the "Big Three" North American car producers have better productivity, quality and reliability records than plants just over the border in Michigan. While GM is still shedding employees overall, it is expanding its work force in Canada.

Dennis DesRosiers, an analyst, says parts manufacturing and vehicle assembly operations combined have been adding 1,000 jobs a month to the Canadian economy for the past two years. In fact, one of the main factors constraining GM from adding the additional shifts is concern whether parts manufacturers, already producing at 120 per cent capacity, could meet the additional demand.

While the incident makes it clear unemployment is still a big problem in the industrial heartland of the country, it does counter the theory that traditional manufacturing jobs are "rusting out", to be displaced by minimum-wage employment in the service industries.