Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney
©Canadian Press photo
Employment Minister Jason Kenney is making politically correct statements designed to appease voters while P.E.I. seafood processors and fishermen are talking economic armageddon based on real experiences at the local level. Neither side seems willing to concede. If the stalemate continues, the losers will be the lobster industry — fishermen, their families and seafood processors.
It’s amazing how a few isolated cases of abuse of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program by fast-food operators in Victoria, B.C., and Weyburn, Sask., can hammer the Maritime seafood industry. The question was asked: “why are there foreign workers in the Atlantic region where we have a high unemployment rate?” The conservative base complained, the federal government overreacted and Mr. Kenney, under pressure from his boss and the PM’s inner circle, is trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Early last week, Maritime seafood processors issued a statement, warning that the loss of temporary foreign workers could reduce lobster processing by as much as 25 per cent. The industry delivered the ominous warning that eight processing operations, which employ 1,500 Canadians that process 25 per cent of the region’s lobster, may not be able to operate if they are forced to reduce their access to foreign workers. The industry challenged Mr. Kenney’s comments there are thousands of unemployed Maritimers drawing EI that could easily replace the loss of foreign workers in fish plants.
It didn’t take long for Mr. Kenney to join the battle. Mid-week, he made himself available to The Guardian and in a detailed and convincing rebuttal, he made his case. He charged that P.E.I. seafood processors have been using temporary foreign workers while an abundant supply of local fish plant labourers collect EI.
He suggested plants were laying off Islanders to bring in cheaper foreign workers and processors were getting too dependent on the overseas labour because they make for more agreeable employees who exist in “a kind of quasi-indentured status.” Mr. Kenney said wages would have increased and investment in automation would have happened more quickly had it not been for access to foreign workers.
That’s why TFW program changes will go ahead as planned, although Mr. Kenney was reluctant to be too critical of plant operators who are creating jobs and wealth and play a key part in the fishery industry.
Mr. Kenney challenged Island processors to find a market solution for a market problem such as offering Islanders better wages and benefits, more flexible shifts and working hours, more assistance with transportation, more aggressive recruitment efforts and improving productivity through automation.
Shortly after Mr. Kenney’s lengthy defence, the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association came out in support of processors. Fishermen and processors — usually at odds over price, inventory and capacity — are working together on this issue. The FA said it is very concerned about the impact on seafood plants, noting this province has one of the highest employment rates in Canada during the spring and summer seasons with strong competition for skilled workers in the primary fishing, agriculture and tourism sectors.
The FA agrees with processors that up to 25 per cent of the province’s processing capacity could be reduced if proper staffing levels are not in place for the upcoming season. That is significant. It’s time Ottawa pays closer attention to these concerns and seeks some sort of compromise. A 25 per cent reduction could deal the struggling lobster fishery a potentially lethal blow.
Many foreign workers have been coming back to Canada for a number of years. Why doesn’t Ottawa fast-track their immigration claims and then we wouldn’t have the current controversy? It would be a good start.