Temporary foreign worker changes will have serious effect on P.E.I.

Teresa Wright twright@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on June 21, 2014

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Adolfo Cortes sorts through a tableload of strawberry plants in the Westech Agriculture warehouse in Alberton. This is the tenth year Cortes has come from Mexico to help with the farm’s operation.

Eric McCarthy/Journal Pioneer

Ottawa’s sweeping changes to the temporary foreign worker program will have serious impacts on P.E.I.’s seafood industry – impacts that could see some fish plants close, says the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association.

Fish processing plants are the principal users of the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program in Prince Edward Island. This year approximately 400 workers were brought in from other countries to fill vacancies that could not be filled locally. 

Dennis King, executive director of the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association, says the changes announced Friday in Ottawa will make it even more challenging to access workers, which could have devastating impacts not only on the plants themselves, but on the province’s whole lobster industry

“There’s a chronic labour shortage facing our sector, and the temporary foreign worker program has been one of the avenues used to try to Band-Aid this, or lessen the impacts of this labour shortage,” King said.

“At worst being reduced to 10 per cent of temporary foreign workers in the workforce might close some lobster plants, at best it’s going to drastically impact the way we process and the amount we process.”

One of the many changes to the TFW program announced Friday is a cap that will be placed on the number of low-wage temporary foreign workers an employer can hire at each worksite.

This cap will only allow only 30 per cent of a worksite’s employees to be temporary foreign workers starting immediately, dropping to 20 per cent next year and 10 per cent by July 2016.

Currently, some lobster processing plants in P.E.I. have a TFW workforce of 50 to 60 per cent.

Having to drop to 10 per cent with a new quadrupling of fees will have serious implications for those plants, King said.

The industry is already reeling from delays this year in getting temporary foreign workers to the Island.

Currently there are close to 400 vacancies in fish plants across the Island. This has led to quotas being imposed on some lobster boats during this, the peak season for the fishery.

But Kenney said during a news conference in Ottawa Friday employers with more than 50 per cent of their workforce made up of TFWs are relying on them too heavily.

“That is what I would call a business model, that is not the purpose of the program,” Kenney said.

“The purpose of the program is to be a last, limited, temporary resort, not a business model. If we did not take this approach, I suspect we would see that model growing.”

In a Tweet to The Guardian, Kenney also pointed to the fact P.E.I. currently has the highest unemployment rate in the country at 11.7 per cent and that 7,300 of the current 9,700 unemployed Islanders are on employment insurance.

“They should come 1st (sic) for available jobs,” Kenney wrote in his Twitter message.

But Innovation Minister Allen Roach says Kenney simply is not looking at the unique and challenging employment situation in P.E.I.

Seafood plants workers must work 10- to 16-hour days, standing in a production line, six days a week.

Young, able-bodied workers in P.E.I. who can shoulder this kind of labour are going west for higher paying jobs, Roach said.

“Prince Edward Island simply cannot compete with the wages that are provided in the oil industry in Alberta,” he said.

“If you’re an able-bodied worker and you have the opportunity, instead of making $11- to $14-an-hour you could go out to Alberta and make upwards of $50-an-hour, what would you do?”

King said the industry has tried everything to attract locals to work in their plants, to no avail.

That’s why his members and the P.E.I. government are frustrated Ottawa is making sweeping national changes without taking into account regional workforce differences.

Both King and Roach wondered why the seafood processing industry was not exempted from all the new changes to the TWF program, as the seasonal agricultural workers are.

“I suppose it’s easy to sit in an office in Ottawa or Calgary and look at an (unemployment) number and say, ‘Oh, there should be lots of people to work,’ but we’d love to see somebody come down to North Lake and round up some workers for us, if he thinks it’s that easy,” King said.

Roach said he would be seeking further information on the changes and will provide a more in-depth response to the impacts they will have on Prince Edward Island next week.