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Lobster is packed for sale at Royal Star Food in Tignish, P.E.I. Ottawa quietly allowed seasonal business, including Atlantic Canada fish processing plants, to import unlimited numbers of temporary foreign workers this year.

Nathan Rochford/The Globe and Mail

There are things governments do that make reasonable people say, "really?"

Surely one of them is Ottawa's decision to waive its own rules and allow seasonal businesses, including Atlantic Canada fish processing plants, to import unlimited numbers of temporary foreign workers this year.

Wary of a public backlash, the federal government made the change so quietly that only seafood processors knew about it until this week when The Globe and Mail's Bill Curry reported it. Other industries are now clamouring for similar concessions.

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There is a political calculation at work. The Liberals made a clean sweep of Atlantic Canada in the last election and MPs from the region are flexing their muscles to help local businesses.

Explaining the rationale could prove much more difficult.

The argument that people aren't willing to take seasonal jobs paying $12 an hour – as one Prince Edward Island fisheries industry official made – simply doesn't cut it. Or, perhaps, potential workers look down on this kind of dirty low-skilled work.

Businesses should try harder. A good start would be to raise wages, improve working conditions and get more creative at attracting workers closer to home.

The four Atlantic Canada provinces had the highest jobless rates in the country in February – ranging from 9.1 per cent in Nova Scotia to 14.1 per cent in Newfoundland and Labrador, or well above the 7.3-per-cent national average. In rural areas, where most plants are located, unemployment rates are typically even higher, particularly for youth.

Now, with the oil patch suffering, thousands of unemployed workers are migrating back home to the region, swelling the ranks of available workers. Seasonal unemployment may be lower because businesses are all competing for workers in the prime summer months, but that's also when thousands of students are out of school.

It's not just that evidence of a labour shortage is scant. The fundamental problem is this country's haphazard, ever-changing and often contradictory approach to labour market policies.

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Fish processing is a classic example of policy absurdity. After striking the Canada-Europe free-trade deal in 2013, Ottawa promised to pay $280-million in compensation to Newfoundland and Labrador's fishing industry for scrapping rules that require fish landed in the province to be processed there. It was a quid pro quo for getting Europe to drop import tariffs on Canadian fish.

And yet the processing jobs at risk from free trade are the same ones we are now told no Canadians want. So why, then, would the government compensate an industry for lost processing jobs, while simultaneously making it easier to fill those jobs with imported labour?

In 2014, the Conservatives tightened the rules to the temporary foreign worker program, responding to reports that it was being overused and abused by some Canadian businesses. At its peak in 2012, nearly 340,000 foreign workers were here temporarily under a "last resort" program to fill jobs Canadians can't or won't do. The program was never meant to be a permanent crutch.

Among the 2014 changes, employers in the food service industry were barred from using the program in regions where the jobless rate exceeds 6 per cent. Other sectors face tighter limits on what percentage of workers can be imported.

Less than two years later, the Liberals are now promising another wholesale review by a House of Commons committee – in part to appease businesses seeking more flexibility to import labour.

Meanwhile, the government is pledging to make changes to employment insurance, possibly outlining some of them as soon as next week's budget. The Liberals' election platform talked of cutting premiums and halving the waiting period for collecting EI. Under the current system, people in high-unemployment regions have to work less to earn maximum benefits, creating a disincentive to work more than the minimum, or to move in search of work.

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In making further EI changes, Ottawa is facing a host of different demands. Alberta wants to ease qualification rules to stem out-migration from the oil patch, Atlantic Canada wants more help as laid-off oil patch workers return home, and Ontario wants EI eligibility and benefits put on an equal footing across the country.

If there are persistent gaps in the labour force, they should be filled primarily with Canadians. And barring that, through targeted immigration, not migrant workers.

It's not readily apparent that a coherent national economic strategy is at work here.

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