PEI

Opposition worried new immigration stream will push low wages even lower

P.E.I.’s Official Opposition has expressed concerns about a new immigration stream specifically targeted at four occupations where government says workers are in sharp demand.

Government says first workers under new program could arrive by summer

Any new workers coming in will struggle to find affordable housing, Green MLA Trish Altass said, just like locals do. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

P.E.I.'s Official Opposition has expressed concerns about a new immigration stream specifically targeted at four occupations where government says workers are in sharp demand.

The new Occupations in Demand stream of P.E.I.'s provincial nominee program is designed to fill jobs for light duty cleaners in the tourism industry, construction labourers, nurse aides and truck drivers.

In the legislature Thursday, Green MLA Trish Altass said the new immigration program targets "entry-level positions that are too often paid below a living wage."

A quick perusal of a federal government job bank Thursday found positions for construction labourers on P.E.I. with starting wages in the range of $16 to $22 an hour.

For housekeepers, the range started at $13 – P.E.I.'s current minimum wage – up to $16 an hour.

Green MLA Trish Altass says before launching a new immigration program, the province should have looked for ways to attract local workers to industries facing labour shortages. (Legislative Assembly of P.E.I.)

"Are you concerned that an influx of workers in these specific low-wage areas could drive down wages in these jobs and keep them down?" Altass asked the province's Minister of Economic Growth Matthew MacKay.

"No, I'm not," the minister responded. 

We're hoping this summer, we're going to have some of those workers here on Prince Edward Island.— Matthew MacKay

"If anything, the wages should increase. There's a big demand in the workforce right now. I'm getting calls from companies every day looking for people."

MacKay said one employer called him Thursday, "looking for two labourers at, I believe, it was $21 an hour, and he can't get one resumé."

1,000 vacant construction jobs

The head of the P.E.I. Construction Association recently estimated there are up to 1,000 unfilled positions in that industry.

In hospitality, last year hotel operators said they had managers cleaning rooms because they couldn't hire enough cleaning staff.

But after question period Thursday, Altass said in an interview there are steps the province should have taken to try to find out why those jobs can't be filled locally before opening up a new immigration program.

"What is preventing people or what are the barriers for people to want to get involved … to take on these jobs?" Altass said. "What can we do to make these jobs more appealing?

"Just opening a new immigration stream in this targeted way without any of this additional work, without looking at the quality of work and the issues that workers are facing is an incomplete answer. And it won't resolve the issues that we're facing."

Minister of Economic Growth Matthew MacKay says the federal government will be able to process applications under the new program in one to three months, and he hopes the first workers will arrive on P.E.I. by summer. (Legislative Assembly of P.E.I.)

Any new workers coming in will struggle to find affordable housing, Altass said, just like locals do.

P.E.I. has for months had the highest inflation rate in the country. In 2021, average rental prices increased by nine per cent, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, while the vacancy rate dropped to 1.5 per cent, one of the lowest in the country.

Program could lower wages, says economist

As to whether filling job vacancies through a new immigration stream will depress wages, UPEI economist Jim Sentance said "if you're bringing significant numbers of people in to do these kinds of jobs then it probably will mean lower wages than would otherwise be the case for Islanders that might be willing and able to do that kind of work."

Sentance said that doesn't mean wages will drop below their current levels — but rather that bringing in more workers will ease the pressure that might have pushed wages up if employers had to compete for local workers.

Sentence said there are also some occupations, like fish plant and agricultural workers, "where Islanders clearly don't have much interest in doing them and it makes some sense to bring immigrants in."

Under the Temporary Foreign Worker program, employers have to submit a labour market impact assessment, which is meant to provide some assurance that a job could not be filled locally.

The P.E.I. government said the Occupations in Demand program doesn't require a labour market impact assessment, which only applies to the Temporary Foreign Worker program. But a spokesperson said employers will have to show the province they have tried to hire locally, and show that the position is for full-time, year-round employment.

First workers could arrive by summer, says minister

In terms of how many workers might come through the new program the province didn't offer a number. P.E.I.'s allocation for all streams of its provincial nominee program in 2021 was 1,460 people, plus families. The allocations for 2022 have not yet been announced by the federal government.

However many workers come through the new program, MacKay expressed the hope they will start arriving soon.

"How long do people have to wait to get into the country and get to work? The federal government has committed between one and three months, which is very fast-track," he told the legislature. 

"We're hoping this summer, we're going to have some of those workers here on Prince Edward Island working for the Island economy and creating tax dollars."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca

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