Seafood processors in Prince Edward Island have been using temporary foreign workers while an abundant supply of local fish plant labourers collect EI, according to new data released by Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s office.
The information was compiled as part of an ongoing project, requested by the provinces, to collect more detailed statistics in the wake of Ottawa’s unpopular overhaul of the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program. Statistics for P.E.I. were provided to The Guardian by an official in Kenney’s office.
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This new data shows that in every month of the year 2013, hundreds of Islanders who identified as ‘fish plant workers’ and ‘labourers in fish processing’ were collecting employment insurance.
Meanwhile, between 50 and 245 foreign workers were brought to P.E.I. to work in seafood processing plants.
“For whatever reason we have more folks who have been laid off from fish processing plants on the Island than positions being filled by TFWs in every month of the year,” Kenney said an interview with The Guardian Thursday.
“This is clear evidence of a mismatch.”
Further data shows the majority of P.E.I. fish plant workers collecting EI benefits were under the age of 45.
Kenney says this dispels concerns raised by officials in the provincial government and industry that most of the Island workers available for employment in these plants are too old for hard labour.
The employment minister was reacting to comments made earlier this week by an official with the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association who said losing TFWs could reduce lobster processing in the Maritimes by as much as 25 per cent.
Kenney said Thursday the industry has become too dependent on the overseas labour. Employers likely prefer foreign workers because they make for more agreeable employees, he said. He compared their positions in these worksites as “a kind of quasi-indentured status.”
“Their immigration status is conditional on their work, so often those folks that come in, the managers know they’re going to show up every day for work so there’s a greater degree of reliability,” Kenney said. “In many respects, employers have begun to see it as a more efficient workforce, but that is not what it’s there for.”
But Dennis King, spokesperson for the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association, said Kenney’s data does not take into account the geography of the Island when looking at available local workers.
“The numbers presented by Jason Kenney are province-wide, where the association’s (figures) focused specifically on Kings County where the need for temporary foreign workers is greatest,” King said in an email to The Guardian.
“The loss of 200 temporary foreign workers in these Kings County plants during peak processing periods would create significant challenges finding workers, with only 350 EI recipients in total to potentially draw from.”
King added his belief that the federal department’s figures do not distinguish between those EI recipients with open claims versus those without, but an official with Kenney’s office confirmed their data does exclude those with open claims.
Kenney spoke at length about his wish to dispel the “misconceptions and anecdotes that dominate the debate” around his controversial TFW program reforms.
He further added his belief that prolonged use of foreign workers in certain industries across the country have created a wage distortion.
He pointed specifically to the seafood-processing sector in Atlantic Canada and the restaurant sector in Alberta.
“I have absolutely no doubt that wages would have gone up more steeply and investment in automation would have happened more quickly had it not been for access to folks from abroad at the prevailing wage rate.”
He said his government has been frustrated demand for overseas workers has been growing in areas with high unemployment, such as P.E.I. That’s why, despite calls for exceptions to be made for the seafood processing industry, the TFW program changes will go ahead as planned, Kenney said.
In the meantime, the department will work to ‘nudge’ unemployed Islanders collecting EI with jobs that have, up until now, been filled by overseas workers.
“The program will continue to be there as a last and limited resort, but it cannot and it will no longer be a business model,” Kenney said.
Statistics Canada data shows the unemployment rate in P.E.I. has hovered around 11 per cent since 2005, which equates to between 8,000 and 9,600 Islanders without jobs every year.
Meanwhile, the number of temporary foreign 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.