Front cover of Service Canada's temporary foreign workers information brochure for employers.
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Prince Edward Island consistently has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, yet the number of temporary foreign workers being sought by P.E.I. companies has more than quadrupled in the last decade.
And it’s no longer only seafood processing plants and farms utilizing these workers.
A detailed list of P.E.I. businesses that received approval for temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in 2013 shows an increasing number of restaurants, nursing homes and trades companies are looking for TFWs.
The list, obtained through access to information legislation, shows even the provincial government uses temporary foreign workers.
Health P.E.I. currently has approximately 19 individuals employed on the Island through the temporary foreign worker program, with salary ranges between $15 and $187 per hour, a spokeswoman for Health P.E.I. told The Guardian in a statement.
“Temporary foreign workers have been recruited to the Island if we have not been able to secure Canadian trained health care workers,” the spokeswoman said.
“A variety of health professionals are hired through this program, many are highly skilled specialists who have agreed to provide locum coverage on P.E.I.”
Data from Statistics Canada shows the unemployment rate in Prince Edward Island has hovered around 11 per cent since 2005 – which equates to between 8,000 and 9,600 Islanders without jobs every year.
Over that same time period, the number of Labour Market Opinions (LMOs) approved by Employment and Social Development Canada for temporary foreign worker positions has ballooned from 220 in 2005 to over 1,100 in 2012.
LMOs are applications a company must submit to prove it has made every effort to hire Canadian workers before turning to the TFW program.
Prince Edward Island has the highest rate of growth of temporary foreign workers in Atlantic Canada.
P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz says there are some jobs unemployed Islanders are simply not able to perform.
“If there’s a 70-year-old person that needs a job… they may not be able to do a certain job, so that’s why you need temporary foreign workers,” Ghiz said.
“There are skilled trades out there that we may not have people in the province that are able to undertake.”
Numbers for 2013 have not yet been released by Statistics Canada, but the list of P.E.I. businesses that received approval to hire TFWs in 2013 released through access to information shows close to 500 positions were for low-skilled workers.
Carl Pursey, president of the P.E.I. Federation of Labour, says P.E.I. should not be permitted to bring more temporary foreign workers into the province when so many Islanders are jobless.
He said the problem lies in the fact some businesses do not want to pay wages and offer working conditions that Islanders would accept.
“They want to bring temporary foreign workers in because they can work them for longer hours and not pay them for all the hours that they work, and they can charge them $800 for living accommodations and put about 20 of them in one house,” Pursey said.
“They want them because they can abuse them.”
Earlier this week, Restaurants Canada chairman and Charlottetown restaurant owner Liam Dolan said P.E.I. restaurants are suffering from a major shortage of cooks.
That’s why he joined with the national restaurant association in calling on the federal government to lift the current moratorium on the food services industry’s use of the TFW program. It was imposed after reports of abuse of the program surfaced in other jurisdictions.
“This is a labour shortage crisis,” Dolan said.
“It’s just very, very hard to find cooks. It’s like other trades. You talk to electricians, they’ve all gone west.”
But Pursey suggests Island restaurants may be short on cooks because they are not paying them enough.
“If you want a certified cook, you’ll probably have to pay them more than $10 an hour,” Pursey said.
The labour group is calling for more inspections on businesses that employ foreign workers to ensure their working conditions are fair.
It also believes restaurants and sectors other than seasonal industries like fish processing and agriculture should not be eligible for TFWs while so many Islanders remain unemployed.
“There’s nothing temporary about a restaurant that’s open year-round. There’s no reason for them to have someone in temporarily,” Pursey said.
“That’s not the intent of the program.”
Ottawa, it seems, may agree.
A spokeswoman for Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s office said the increased use of the TFW program is a key reason recent changes were made to employment insurance – changes that have since proved highly controversial.
“The changes our government introduced to the EI system in 2012 were made in part because a growing number of employers were experiencing labour shortages, even in regions of high unemployment, and were resorting to bringing in temporary foreign workers from overseas, rather than hiring local unemployed individuals,” Kenney’s spokeswoman Alexandra Fortier said in an email to The Guardian.
“Employers are required to continue actively seeking qualified Canadians first, including employers in P.E.I.’’
The Guardian attempted to contact a number of the businesses on the list of companies that received approval to hire temporary foreign workers in P.E.I., but did not receive any responses.