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Harris Centre report makes case for more temporary foreign workers in rural and remote N.L.

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New research from the Harris Centre’s Population Project suggests temporary foreign workers can relieve the labour gap in rural and remote areas of the province where the average age of residents continues to climb.

The research looked at the labour market situation in Labrador.

It was a direct response to the Labrador and Northern Peninsula population projections released by the Population Project last year showing major decreases for many communities in the region.

Entitled “The Temporary Foreign Worker Program and Employers in Labrador,” the report is the first of a number of public policy research papers making recommendations on how the region could adapt and prepare.

The research was undertaken by members of Memorial University’s Department of Economics and led by Dr. Tony Fang, the Stephen Jarislowsky Chair in Cultural and Economic Transformation.

“This work combines employer interviews with statistics around the hiring of temporary foreign workers, which is a different focus from previous studies that have focused on interviewing temporary foreign workers,” Dr. Fang said in a news release.

“Unlike past studies, we placed significant focus on the perspectives of the employers who hire these workers.”

The federal government imposed additional restrictions on the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) in 2014, the release noted, including a rule that prevents businesses from hiring workers if they are in a location with a regional rate of unemployment of six per cent or higher. Many employers in Labrador are now finding it much harder to hire and retain enough staff.

“Temporary foreign workers are important for employers in rural and remote areas such as Labrador, where labour supply is often unpredictable,” Dr. Fang explained.

“This is especially true for Labrador where the boom/bust economic cycle of the resource sector has pushed employers to seek a more flexible labour supply, and has increased employers’ reliance on the TFWP.”

One of the issues is that the program’s broad rules do not take regional labour market contexts into account, the news release states.

Newfoundland and Labrador has a high rate of unemployment relative to the rest of the country. Therefore, under the current rules of the TFWP, it is assumed local labour is available.

The high regional rate of unemployment in Labrador, however, doesn’t give a true picture of the actual labour market situation because of the large amount of seasonal work in the region.

The new program is also unable to address challenges related to Labrador’s geography and aging demographics.

The loss of this labour source has presented Labrador employers with real challenges, which are expected to become more serious in the future as the populations in many regions in Labrador age and decrease, the release suggests.

Dr. Fang believes policy changes at the municipal, provincial and federal levels of government could encourage more local participation in the labour market and make the TFWP better able to address regional needs.

“The research shows that there is a demonstrated need for temporary foreign workers in Labrador, so effective policy is essential. We’ve identified a number of critical areas to improve the effectiveness of the TFWP in Labrador,” Dr. Fang said.

“Significant improvements are possible through collaboration between major stakeholders, including all levels of governments, employers’ associations and various labour unions in the province.”

The report recommends the creation of a local labour supply and demand database to better understand needs and opportunities, a modification of some of the regulations of the TFWP to reflect Labrador’s specific needs and supports for temporary foreign workers, including language training, housing improvements and greater supports and opportunities to pursue permanent residency.

Population Project director Keith Storey, acknowledges demographic changes in the province will present some significant policy challenges down the road.

“Labour supply issues will become increasingly important. What this report clearly illustrates is that there are ways in which we can prepare to better meet future labour needs,” he said in the news release.

The report and the Population Project’s population projections for the Northern Peninsula and Labrador can be viewed on the Harris Centre’s website here.

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