When Employment Minister Jason Kenney announced changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) he said migrant workers should be the last resort for businesses when hiring. Not the first, second or even third option, but the last. Mr. Kenney further said employers that face a shortage of workers should do more to hire unemployed Canadians.
In response, some companies have denounced the minister's reforms as being anti-business and will be harmed because of a lack of available Canadian workers.
But both government and businesses are skirting the real problem.
Let's clarify straight away what the debate surrounding the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is really about. This isn't about Canada not having enough workers — not when 1.3 million citizens are unemployed. It is about Employment Insurance paying too many people not to work.
The EI system is a mess and the federal government has made only weak-kneed efforts to reform it. So weak that a report from the Council of Atlantic Premiers (strong opponents of any change), says the last major set of reforms failed to have any impact that they could measure, citing the biggest problem was lack of consultation.
Most businesses fuming over the TFWP changes haven't called for needed EI reforms. Until now it's been easier to import workers from Romania, Vietnam and the Philippines than wade into a messy debate.
EI advocates claim there are no work opportunities. But, of course, we know that is not true. There are still thousands of temporary foreign workers filling jobs people on EI won't do.
Ganong Brothers Ltd, a fourth-generation family-owned chocolate business in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, once employed as many as 40 foreign workers. This year, it is reportedly about 25.
Ganong Brothers is not the only company bringing foreign workers into rural Atlantic Canada. In May, the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, an independent think-tank based in Halifax, released a report showing that in 2012 the total number of temporary foreign workers was 10,900 in Atlantic Canada. That's three times as many as in 2005.
But this number begs an important question. Why are we bringing in thousands of foreign workers to provinces with high unemployment rates and high rates of repeat EI usage? Or put another way, why were 25 foreign workers getting jobs at Ganong when there are about 30,000 New Brunswickers collecting EI at any given month? It doesn't make any sense.
Ganong Ltd is not the only business having trouble finding workers. Another family run New Brunswick company, Millennium Marine, is closing its doors and moving operations to Eastport, Maine, because the operator could not find workers willing to fill the jobs. Owner Cory
Guimon told the CBC that seasonal jobs, subsidized by EI, were too much for his full-time jobs to compete with. He says Americans are now lining up for the work.
So what can be done to incentivize more Canadians to take these types of full-time jobs?
For starters, reform our Employment Insurance program. Maintaining the current EI system does nothing to solve the region’s high unemployment, high taxes or loss of young people to jobs out west.
Secondly, pay more for low-skilled work. Paying foreign workers less only drags down Canadians’ wages, resulting in fewer Canadians willing to work and fueling the need for additional cheap labour from abroad.
Finally, we need to improve our immigration system. Rather than source temporary workers who leave after their work term, let’s reach out and support permanent immigrants who can stay and become an economic boost for Canada. Unemployed immigrants in urban centers also should be encouraged to move to regions with full-time jobs.
Canadian businesses know EI has perverted the labour market but haven’t wanted to discuss it. They now have an economic incentive to do so. Instead of trying to save the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, businesses should offer solutions on how best to fix EI. That would nicely align their interests with the interests of Canadian workers.
Kevin Lacey is Atlantic Director, Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation