Guardian reporter Teresa Wright’s Q & A with Employment Minister Jason Kenney, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
The interview began with a question about the data released by Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s office showing more fish plant workers were collecting employment insurance in 2013 than the total number of temporary foreign workers brought to P.E.I. to work in seafood processing plants in P.E.I.
Can you just explain why you think those numbers are significant.
We’ve always found it peculiar that employers would be seeking to bring in overseas workers for jobs that have been done by local folks that have been receiving EI.
The temporary foreign worker program is supposed to be a last and limited resort and these figures demonstrate that there are local fish processing plant workers available in Prince Edward Island at all times of the year, including the peak season, and the jobs should be going to them rather than to folks overseas.
This underscores what we’ve been saying all along about our efforts to both reform the employment insurance program and the temporary foreign worker program.
QUESTION: Are you suggesting these people are in inappropriately claiming EI?
Well, they have been approved for EI payments by Service Canada, so I can’t say that, but what I can say is there appears to be some kind of a mismatch going on in the local labour market. 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. So this is clear evidence of a mismatch.
I’d like to point out another aspect of this. Some of the processing plants have suggested that the unemployed plant workers tend to be much older and therefore unable to work year-round, but in fact our stats demonstrate that the number of unemployed fish processing plant workers receiving EI under the age of 44 also exceeds the number of TFWs coming into the industry on the Island.
We don’t think age is an explanation of this either.
Look, I don’t want to criticize the processing plant operators, these are entrepreneurs who are creating jobs and wealth and are a key part in the supply chain in the fishery industry.
I also understand why many employers have become increasingly dependent on the temporary foreign worker program – when people come in from abroad on a work permit, 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 and in many respects, employers have begun to see it as a more efficient workforce, but that is not what it’s there for. It’s only there if it’s clear that no Canadians are available, and this evidence that we’ve released today demonstrates there are Canadians available in those jobs, in those regions.
The industry says they wouldn’t have brought in the foreign workers if they could have hired locals, so what do you suggest they do if they still can’t get locals to take the jobs and also they will have a more restricted access to TFWs?
I believe that if there is a market problem, entrepreneurs have to find a market solution.
In this case, if there is a market problem – a scarcity of available labour, employers should respond with a market solution which is a mixture of such options as – better wages and benefits, more flexible shifts and working hours, perhaps more assistance with transportation, perhaps more aggressive recruitment efforts, automation, improving productivity through automation.
There’s a whole range of normal business-like options available to employers if they’re facing a scarcity, as opposed to what should be maybe the last and limited resort of bringing folks in from aboard, who are in a kind of quasi-indentured status.
So, again, what we’ve been trying to do through al of this – the TFW reforms and the EI reforms – is to encourage folks applying for EI more actively to search for and accept available work in their area, and to encourage employers more actively and deliberately to recruit from the domestic workforce.
It’s a question of really nudging both sides so that we can ensure that Canadians are taking Canadian jobs as much as possible.
P.E.I.’s lobster industry is very crucial to our economy – did your department do any kind of impact analysis on what effect these changes would have on different sectors, whether it be in P.E.I. or in other provinces?
I’ll say that we didn’t do specific studies on every sector of the Canadian economy, however, I can tell you that I and my officials were extremely mindful of the east coast fish processing industry as we developed these rules. In fact, you’ll note that part of our reforms included a complete prohibition on low-paid temporary foreign workers in areas with unemployment of over six per cent for the retail, food services and accommodations sectors.
If you’ll just bare me out here.
We limited it to those service sectors precisely to allow for some ongoing limited access to temporary foreign workers in industries like fish processing in regions of high unemployment.
In other words – let me put it to you this way – prior to 2002, no low-paid, low-skilled temporary foreign workers were allowed in Canada at all in any industry except seasonal agriculture work. And in no other developed country is there a similar program that allows low-paid, low skilled foreign workers to come into the market apart from seasonal agriculture.
The fact that we will continue to allow some limited access to overseas workers after our reforms is an indication that we’ve taken into account the concerns of the industry.
And, finally, the data you see in front of you is part of an ongoing very serious research project in my department to drill down and see exactly what the impacts might be on fish processing.
We continue to work with the Atlantic Seafood Processing Association and the provincial governments in P.E.I. and New Brunswick in particular on this issue, and the data we’ve given you today is part of that effort.
I know you’ve probably had meetings with them and know that they would like to have an exception like the agriculture sector does for low-skilled, low-paid workers. Is that something you’re willing to consider?
The reforms we’ve made are not subject to preferred exceptions for every industry. If we did that, every industry wants exceptions, and effectively if we started providing sectoral exceptions everywhere there’s a demand, then our reforms would be completely reversed, and we have no intention of doing that.
We continue to be in dialogue with the seafood processing industry and the provincial governments.
Both sides have agreed that we need better data and there are some things that we can do to help in the context of the new policy. Later this year, we will be launching the new job matching service so that when employers apply for labour market impact assessments to bring in foreign workers, they will be notified of exactly how many domestic unemployed workers there are receiving EI in their region for those occupations, and similarly we will be telling the EI applicants about the availability of jobs in their occupation in their region. So we are going to be helping to nudge the employers and the unemployed folks together much more proactively. So that’s one of the things that we can do.
My final question – I’m just curious about why you’re making yourself available to talk about this? I’m not going to lie, it’s not very easy for a local newspaper to get an interview with a federal minister.
I think my office is pretty accessible to you guys. My approach is always to be as accessible as I can, and on issues like this, sometimes there are misconceptions and anecdotes that dominate the debate. I want to demonstrate that our policy is based on hard facts and evidence.
I don’t want anyone to get the impression that we have been unsympathetic to the concerns of the seafood processing industry. To the contrary, we’re very aware of those concerns and focused on them. But the numbers I look at tell me there are more folks receiving EI who are seafood processing workers in all of these areas than there are people coming in as foreign workers, and that tells me there is a deeper issue here, and I think we need to have an honest, fact-based discussion about it.
So, in your honest opinion, what do you think is happening? You say you want to have an honest discussion…
(laughs) I’m not going to guess as to what’s happening. We have always felt a degree of frustration when we see a growing demand for overseas workers in areas with relatively high unemployment. It just doesn’t make common sense, does it?
It’s not supported by the facts, it’s not supported by common sense, and I’ll tell you - one of the broader issues that really concerns us that motivated our recent TFW reforms is that in those sectors where you’ve seen the most intensive use of the temporary foreign worker program, we’ve also seen wages tend to stagnate, which really concerns me.
The last thing we want is for the temporary foreign worker program permanently to distort the Canadian labour market in certain sectors and regions.
We’ve seen this in Alberta in the fast food industry, a province where wages overall are going up by three points a year. But they’re only going up by one point a year in Alberta restaurants. That’s probably because we’ve been permitting access to such a large number of overseas workers. And we see something similar going on in seafood processing in Atlantic Canada.
I have absolutely no doubt that wages would have gone up more steeply and investments in automation would have happened more quickly had it not been for access to folks from abroad at the prevailing wage rate.
So, these are the distortions that we want to prevent. Yes, 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.