Don’t blame foreign workers when the problem is locals who prefer EI over working

Posted on April 6, 2017 in Policy Context – Full Comment
April 5, 2017.   John Ivison

Westmorland Fisheries, a lobster and crab processing company based in Cap-Pelé, N.B., found itself short of staff last March and applied for permission to bring in 217 temporary foreign workers.

At the time, government statistics show, there were 719 regular beneficiaries of employment insurance with experience working in fish plants living within 40 km of Cap-Pelé.

This disconnect between the temporary foreign workers and employment insurance programs isn’t limited to fish plants. In reply to a written question from Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the government revealed this week that between December 2015 and September 2016 (the last month for which statistics are available), 67,440 temporary foreign workers were granted access to Canada to work in areas where unemployed Canadians with relevant prior work experience lived close by.

That isn’t how the system is supposed to work. The temporary foreign worker program is meant to be a last resort for employers; the EI program is intended to be a safety net, not a permanent crutch.

So what’s the problem? Poilievre blames the Liberals for relaxing rules tightened by the previous Conservative government.

“Employers need to raise wages and work harder to employ local workers. The government has loosened rules to bring in temporary foreign workers, without employers having to look locally first,” he said. “It distorts the marketplace.”

The Liberals have indeed changed the rules, after the Harper government took a pounding over foreign workers coming over here to take our slaughterhouse jobs.

The Tories had planned to cap the number of low-wage foreign workers at 10 per cent in any one workplace, but the Liberals froze that cap at 20 per cent for companies that regularly access the program. Seasonal industries like fish plants are exempt from the cap for up to 180 days a year.

There is obviously a public-policy misfire here, but I’m not so sure the temporary foreign worker program is to blame. The problem was hyped in the first place by images of tearful waitresses claiming their jobs had been taken by foreigners. The Conservative government was faced with a political problem and overreacted by reducing the already minuscule number of foreign workers — at the time just 1.1 per cent of the 19-million-strong workforce.

Nat Richard, director of corporate affairs at Westmorland Fisheries, said his company would happily avoid participating in the temporary foreign worker program if it could. “It’s costly and complicated. We are always hiring — we spend a lot of money on radio and print ads — and we have significantly increased wages by 12 per cent on base salaries. We would prefer to hire locally but the reality is it’s tough work and we are forced to supplement our workforce with people from Mexico and elsewhere.”

If Richard is correct, the problem is not foreign workers taking the bread from the mouths of unemployed Canadians, it’s that local people with prior experience in the fish processing industry decide they’d prefer to get by on employment insurance.

On this, the Liberals are culpable. In budget 2016, the new government followed through on the electoral bribe that delivered it every single seat in Atlantic Canada.

Under the Conservatives, new entrants and re-entrants to the labour market had to accumulate at least 910 hours of employment in the previous year in order to qualify for benefits. The Liberals reduced that to between 420 and 700 hours, depending on the unemployment rate in the region.

The Westmorland plant sits in the Restigouche-Albert employment insurance region, which has an unemployment rate of 13.5 per cent — which means workers have to work just 420 hours before being eligible to claim EI for a maximum of 45 weeks.

The Liberals also eliminated tighter rules brought in by the Conservatives that required workers to accept employment at lower wages and at further distances from home the longer they received EI.

Why would anyone want to stand on their feet for 10 hours a day, shelling crabs and lobsters, when they can do less taxing work for three months and take the rest of the year off on $500 a week?

It was a calculated political tactic by the Trudeau team. Liberals learned the hard way not mess with EI. In 1995, they cut $2 billion and lost 19 MPs in the next election.

Trudeau’s decision to rescind sensible cuts to the EI program to make it less generous paid political dividends. But he has perpetuated a dependency culture across the country that sees healthy, experienced workers claim benefits, while employers are forced to import foreigners to fill the void.

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