Mexico wants to expand temporary workers in face of Canadian EI changes

OTTAWA – Mexico wants to increase its foreign workforce in Canada, despite the Conservative government’s new employment insurance rules that aim to fill vacant jobs with unemployed Canadians instead.

Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa touted the expansion of the temporary workers programs “to sectors other than agriculture” during a visit to Ottawa on Wednesday.

Canadian companies hire thousands of foreign workers each year to fill jobs that citizens here won’t do. Seasonal workers from Mexico have provided labour to the Canadian agricultural sector since the mid-1970s.

Espinosa said she envisions expanding the program to the service and hospitality sectors, as well as construction.

She brushed aside suggestions that Ottawa’s proposed EI changes might make that more difficult for Mexico.

The government has recently announced changes to the EI system that could force unemployed Canadians to take lower-paying jobs outside their preferred occupations.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has said that bringing in temporary foreign workers is not acceptable, “especially when we have Canadians willing to work.”

The government plans to link the EI system to the temporary foreign workers program to ensure Canadians are aware of employers’ needs.

It is not clear what the impact would be on the influx of foreign workers.

But Espinosa, who came to Ottawa to meet Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, indicated she isn’t worried about the changes.

“Whenever there is a difficult economic situation in a country and unemployment is rising, there is always the concern that any kind of temporary workers program will take away possible jobs for those people who are unemployed,” she said.

“I think that the experience shows that this is really not, in most of the cases, not the real situation.”

Espinosa noted that Canada and the U.S. continue to have shortages of workers in certain sectors, regardless of domestic unemployment numbers.

“I think it is important that we look at the labour market in a much more detailed manner without giving it such a political approach,” she said.

“Our common goal should be to let us create a very ordered and controlled and legal flow of migration in order to address the needs of the labour market … some in more high skilled areas, others in less skilled areas,” she said.

In a statement, Baird praised Mexico as an unwavering friend and trading partner, but made no mention of the foreign workers program.

“Our government’s number No. 1 priority remains jobs, growth and long-term prosperity,” Baird said.

Espinosa helped launch the publication of a new compendium of Canadian foreign policy writing, called Canada Among Nations: Canada and Mexico’s Unfinished Agenda, by the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University and the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

One of its essays noted how the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program has grown to 17,000 in 2010 from 264 participants in 1975.

“The SAWP is an important labour mobility program that benefits Canadian farmers, who have access to much-needed agricultural labour, and Mexican workers, who have access to a legal, safe, and well-organized temporary worker program,” write Julian Ventura and Jon Allen, two senior bureaucrats in Mexico’s and Canada’s respective foreign ministries.