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Overreaction on temporary-worker rules hits seafood sector hard

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On Prince Edward Island, things would be much simpler if Employment Minister Jason Kenney had exempted the fisheries and tourism sectors from stringent, new restrictions for the temporary workers program. Agriculture had been previously exempted and remains so. There was an expectation that fisheries might also enjoy exemption status, especially after Justice Minister Peter MacKay publicly expressed that same hope last week. Mr. MacKay is the senior cabinet minister from Nova Scotia, a province where fish plants are even more important to the local economy than here on P.E.I.

But for some reason, Mr. Kenney decided not to follow that advice. The result is turmoil among seafood processors and fishermen amid predictions of a weakening capacity to process fish, especially lobster.

Mr. Kenney has over-reacted to abuses in the system caused by some fast-food chains in Western Canada. Those abuses hurt the "Conservative brand" and the federal government decided it had to act decisively to cool public anger — to ensure that Canadians must be first in line for available jobs.

Mr. Kenney’s solution has failed to recognize the unique labour market needs of various regions of the country. He added costs for employers and increased red tape to access the program. Those changes are in defiance of the Conservative brand.

On P.E.I., seafood processors have been the most vocal opponents, while the Greater Charlottetown Chamber of Commerce and the local Canadian Federation of Independent Business are also concerned. The chamber has written federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea and Island MPs calling for an immediate end to the moratorium in the food services sector. The CFIB warned that most small Atlantic businesses will be shut out of accessing much-needed foreign workers.

There is a legitimate concern that too many businesses lost sight of what the program was all about — a plan of urgent need and last resort. Instead, employers started making their business plans around the availability of cheaper foreign workers willing to accept tedious, long hours on assembly lines, harvesting or packing. They eagerly take jobs that local workers were reluctant to accept or refused to fill.

Mr. Kenney asked the question, as did many Canadians: How can we have high unemployment rates when there are countless unfilled job openings across Canada, even with hundreds of thousands of foreign workers in the country?

The focus on fish plants revealed some disturbing issues, such as monotonous 16-hour days standing in the same place on a lobster-packing line. If such conditions are unacceptable to Island workers, why are they considered acceptable for Filipinos? Why aren’t work days limited to eight hours with a higher wage? Maybe then we wouldn’t have a problem with worker shortages.

Some workers don’t mind the long days, especially for the two-month period during the spring lobster fishery. It’s an opportunity to accumulate more stamps for an EI claim.

It was disappointing that Mr. Kenney did not put more emphasis on the valuable effort put forth by many temporary foreign workers or offer more incentives for them to achieve permanent residency status and eventually become citizens. Roadblocks were thrown up to keep them out, instead of making them welcome and appreciated.

Mr. Kenney’s new guidelines mean Premier Robert Ghiz, Minister Shea and other Atlantic politicians must make a more forceful case and persuade Ottawa to amend the rules for this region. It’s obvious a strong case was not presented to the employment minister before he made his decision. Our politicians must get their act together.

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