Ottawa may be working toward employment insurance changes that would require people to take local jobs now filled by foreign labourers, but at least one Annapolis Valley farmer says he’s happy with the way things are now.

Bruce Rand of Randsland Farm in Canning says 16 of his employees are Canadian but the remaining 36 who work primarily in the fields come from Jamaica every year under the federal temporary farm workers program.

Rand said he always had problems getting workers for his broccoli farm, which supplies the retail and food service industry in Atlantic Canada and exports to the United States. Canadians don’t want to toil in the field but will work in the packing and grading jobs, he said.

To be eligible for the temporary workers program, farmers must post the jobs locally early in the year to show there is not enough local interest in the positions.

“We have to accommodate anybody who applies within a six-week period,” Rand said. “This is our 18th year (in the program), and I can tell you that in the past 10 years I have not had one (Canadian) apply for these jobs.”

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney wouldn’t confirm the EI changes during a visit to Halifax on Thursday, but he told the editorial board of the National Post on Wednesday that coming legislation would require unemployed Canadians to take such local jobs or risk losing their benefits. That has always been a legal principle of the program, he said, and he cited the oddity of high unemployment in areas that are bringing in foreign workers.

But Rand said his farm was in trouble until he was able to start hiring foreign workers for the season.

Without them, he said, “I wouldn’t be farming. There’s no way I can depend on local Canadians to help me grow my crop and harvest my crop. I just wouldn’t be in business. I went through that from 1970 to 1985 and I was ready to quit.”

The start of the temporary worker program in the mid-1980s “caused a revolution in horticulture in the Annapolis Valley,” Rand said. “Now we have the opportunity to grow fresh market vegetables with the help of this offshore labour force.”

He said hiring Canadians would mean hiring people who are in transition.

“Yeah, they’ll come and pull weeds for me or cut broccoli today, and they’ll be back tomorrow, but next Wednesday or Thursday if somebody offers them something different they’re out of here, and then what am I going to do? I have to stand there and watch my crop go to hell. Then my banker says ‘I’m not going to give you money to operate your farm if that’s going to be the case.’ That was our problem before we had access to the secure labour from offshore.”

Don McIver, director of research at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax, supports amending the EI system.

“First of all, if you were to look at the temporary farm workers program, more than 50 per cent are made up of clerical and labouring positions,” McIver said.

“There seem to be some odd discrepancies there. Is it that we don’t have the labour skills necessary to meet these positions? I find that dubious, and if that were the case, then for goodness’ sake the provincial labour and education ministers should be trying to find out where our training deficiencies are.”