High unemployment rate, foreign workers don't mix: Kenney

Employers must work harder to attract local workers to address labour shortages, says federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney

Teresa Wright twright@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on July 12, 2014
Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney
Canadian Press photo

Employers will have to work harder to attract local workers to address labour shortage concerns, especially in areas of high unemployment, says Employment Minister Jason Kenney.

The federal jobs minister was in Charlottetown Friday to meet with labour ministers from across the country and to hear from them for the first time since sweeping changes to the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program were announced three weeks ago.

P.E.I. Innovation Minister Allen Roach says he and his counterparts raised a number of concerns about the reforms during this meeting.

“Many expressed that they are extremely concerned about the direct impact these changes will have on their industries,” Roach said.

Kenney responded Friday he would be willing to make some special local exemptions to the reforms, but only in small areas whose local unemployment rates do not reflect the rate of their federally recognized EI region.

Overall his message was clear – employers in areas of high unemployment will have to do more to attract local workers to fill their job vacancies.

He encouraged employers to ‘redouble their efforts,’ consider offering additional incentives, such as increased salaries, more flexible shifts or more transportation options to bring in workers from different areas.

“We think those options are all preferable than picking up the phone and calling a labour recruiter on the other side of the world and having someone fly in from a developing country into a region of double-digit unemployment.”

The TFW changes are raising serious concern among those in P.E.I.’s lobster industry, as the province’s seafood processors have long been heavy users of migrant workers in lobster processing plants.

This spring, a shortage of temporary foreign workers led to quotas being imposed on lobster fishermen during the Island’s limited three-month spring fishing season.

Fishermen and processors say even more restricted access to migrant workers could have far-reaching impacts on the province’s entire lobster industry, which makes up the lion’s share of one of P.E.I.’s three biggest industries – fishing.

But Kenney says regardless of the industry in question, high unemployment rates and temporary foreign workers don’t mix.

“Let’s just put it this way, I would hope that any part of Canada with double-digit unemployment through much of the year, that we can get those Canadians to take those available jobs as opposed to bringing people in from abroad,” Kenney said.

Data from Statistics Canada shows the unemployment rate in Prince Edward Island has hovered around 11 per cent since 2005 - which equates to between 8,000 and 9,600 Islanders without jobs every year.

Nonetheless, the number of temporaryforeign workers being sought by P.E.I. companies has more than quadrupled in the last decade.

Prince Edward Island has the highest rate of growth of temporary foreign workers in Atlantic Canada.

But Roach says it’s not as simple as telling someone drawing EI to work in a fish plant.

“(Kenney) did point out in our meeting today that there is a community in Prince Edward Island that has upwards of 300 people that are unemployed, but I think just to take those numbers is making a large assumption that those people are all capable to work in a seafood processing plant,” Roach said.

He has asked Kenney to go back and reexamine the evidence to support the need for the TFW changes to apply in P.E.I.

Kenney agreed.

The federal minister acknowledged, however, his government’s controversial employment insurance reforms and the sweeping changes announced last month to the temporary foreign worker program were done to address areas of high unemployment, like P.E.I., bringing in an increasing number of migrant workers.

Kenney called this an ‘aberration’ that does not make sense.

“You either have a labour shortage or a labour surplus. You can’t have both at the same time in the same place,” Kenney said.

He announced Friday a new job matching service will be implemented later this year that will inform EI claimants of any available jobs in their area. This will also try to match employers in need of workers with those looking for employment. 

 twright@theguardian.pe.ca

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