Ottawa is preparing to tackle one of the country’s most sensitive labour questions: Why won’t healthy, unemployed Canadians get their hands dirty?
The Conservative government is preparing legislative and policy changes that, for the first time, will link the federal Employment Insurance program to the Temporary Foreign Worker program.
A spokesperson for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley would not give details of the changes, saying the minister will announce them over the coming weeks and months.
This is the latest aspect of the government’s focus on current and looming labour shortages. Ottawa wants to help satisfy the steady demand for unskilled labourers who are willing to work physically demanding jobs that may pay little more than the minimum wage.
The changes will ultimately be announced by Ms. Finley, but Immigration Minister Jason Kenney opened a political can of worms this week by asking why employers in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. are bringing in temporary workers when those provinces have persistently high unemployment.
Mr. Kenney was bombarded with questions Thursday following a speech in Halifax.
“We are trying to connect the unemployed workers with the employers,” he said, but would not go so far as to say that someone collecting EI would be cut off for refusing to accept an available job.
“Obviously, no one expects people who aren’t able to do manual work to do it,” he said.
The minister added B.C. to his list of anecdotes that he’s been hearing from farm managers across the country, noting that Okanagan Valley farmers can no longer find area high school and university students to work in their orchards in the summer.
“One of the things that I find that Canadians are most frustrated with is the idea that we would be giving Canadian jobs to people from overseas rather than ensuring Canadians have first the crack at it,” he said, adding that “apparently” the government is not doing a good enough job on this front.
The number of temporary foreign workers in Canada has risen more than 50 per cent since 2007, when there were 199,165 workers in the country. In 2011, the number had increased to 300,111.
Ratna Omidvar, who was a lead adviser for a recent policy report by the Mowat Centre Employment Insurance Task Force, said the minister is right to tackle the question. The answer, she said, might be to pay Canadians more.
“There are many economists who say that the Temporary Foreign Worker program depresses wages unnaturally,” she said. “It’s a question of supply and demand. If there’s no supply of labour, then maybe wages need to rise.”
John Eisses, an apple grower in the Annapolis Valley and president of the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers' Association, says he hires labourers from Newfoundland and Labrador.
He says that other Nova Scotia farmers do use workers from Jamaica and Mexico, allowing him to use “local” workers, but the local labour challenge has been around for a long time.
“It's been too easy for people to get employment insurance,” he said.
Another Nova Scotia farmer, Jim DeLong, says it’s good that Ottawa is asking questions about the province’s high unemployment rate.
“Why do we have to bring foreign labour when we should have a dependable labour force right here? I’ve got the same questions. I don’t have those answers,” he said. Mr. DeLong said he’s fortunate that he has a strong team of local workers - who receive between $10 and $14 an hour.
“People don’t want to go out and do that manual labour anymore, not that kind,” he said.
The federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program is based on contracts between Canadian employers and foreign workers who have been selected by the governments of Mexico and the Caribbean countries.
The Canadian employer must partially pay for round-trip air fare (B.C. pays the full fare), supply free housing and provide a proper cooking area for workers to make their own meals or deduct up to $6.50 a day from wages for food.
Lewis Downey, the executive director of Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, said he doesn’t see a large pool of untapped labour among Canada’s unemployed.
“Local people don’t want that job. It’s ‘too hot,’ or ‘too sweaty,’” he said. “The immigrants are always on the job. The local people want to work just to extend their unemployment. They don’t show up, or they show up at 10 o’clock... Sometimes they are not employable.”