Reform EI, not temporary foreign worker program, says business leader

TC Media newsroom@journalpioneer.com
Published on July 10, 2014

CFIB president Dan Kelly

Some Atlantic Canadians would rather draw employment insurance than work, which is why the EI system needs more stringent reforms, not the temporary foreign worker program, says the national president of Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

Dan Kelly was in Prince Edward Island Wednesday to meet with P.E.I. Finance Minister Wes Sheridan, and one of the items up for discussion was the controversial TFW reforms announced recently in Ottawa.

Kelly, who lives in Toronto, said small and medium-sized businesses are highly critical of the changes to the temporary foreign worker program, which will limit migrant workers in low-wage jobs and ban them in certain sectors in areas of high unemployment.

Businesses in Atlantic Canada will be especially hurt, because the unemployment rate is high and some workers in this region just don’t want to work, Kelly says.

“It’s hard for hard-working people to understand that there is an element in society that exists in every province that will do just about anything not to work,” he said.

A recent survey of CFIB companies in Atlantic Canada found over 20 per cent of employers said have been asked by an employee to lay them off so they can collect EI.

“That’s pretty shocking,” Kelly said.

“We shouldn’t have systems set up so that employers are pressured to lay off staff even though there’s work there, so that the person can collect employment insurance.”

He echoed statements made this week by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, calling the Ottawa’s EI changes mere ‘tinkering’ and calling for more drastic EI reforms to help address labour shortages in Canada.

“With the effective elimination of the TFW program as an option in Atlantic Canada … unless we’re prepared to make more drastic changes to employment insurance, I think the federal government’s move is really, really stupid,” Kelly said.

The temporary foreign worker program will be the focus of a one-hour debate on Friday in Charlottetown when the country’s labour ministers sit down for the first time with Employment Minister Jason Kenney since the TFW changes were announced last month.

A number of provinces are upset over the changes, including Alberta, Nova Scotia and P.E.I.

Island Innovation Minister Allen Roach says he doesn’t like the changes, but remains concerned over the EI reforms as well. He says it’s not as simple as forcing EI claimants to work.

P.E.I.’s labour concerns are complex, as they include mainly seasonal industries competing for workers at the same time of the year. Also the Island is dealing with an aging workforce and a shortage of workers for challenging, labour intensive jobs such as fish processing, which may not be suitable for older workers, Roach said.

“We’d like to see some flexibility,” he said.

“There’s a big difference between rural Canada, rural P.E.I., rural Nova Scotia and Ottawa, the oil fields and big downtown cities.”

He will be supporting a call by P.E.I.’s Seafood Processors Association for an exemption of the Island’s seafood processing sector from the temporary foreign worker program changes, similar to how the agriculture sector has been exempted.

In spite of these concerns being raised by provinces and business groups, the federal government is showing no signs of backing down from its TFW reforms.

A spokeswoman for Kenney’s office, Alexandra Fortier, said the changes will “restore the temporary foreign worker program to its original purpose — as a last and limited resource for employers when there are no qualified Canadians to fill available jobs.”

Specifically in P.E.I., she pointed to data showing in 2013 alone, employers requested nearly 800 temporary foreign workers while maintaining a high unemployment rate of nearly 12 per cent.

Employers must redouble their efforts to recruit and train Canadians for these jobs, turning to new immigrants and people with disabilities to help fill shortages, Fortier said.

“For employers, including fish processing plants, who truly cannot find Canadians, they will continue to have access to the temporary foreign worker program.  They can have up to 30 per cent of their workforce at a worksite comprised of temporary foreign workers and have three years to transition.”