ALBERTON, P.E.I. – Seafood processors associations in the Maritimes are hoping to convince the federal government to allow temporary foreign workers into the country before the region’s spring lobster and snow crab seasons open.
With the Canadian border currently closed to non-residents due to the coronavirus pandemic, Jerry Gavin, executive director of the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association, admits that could be a faint hope, yet one that needs to be explored.
“The fish are going to come out; lobster is going to be harvested this spring. They need to be processed,” he said. Gavin said some fish plants have such a worker shortage that, even if temporary foreign workers (TFWs) are allowed back in, it will be difficult for them to operate at full capacity, and it gets much more challenging without them.
He said conference calls are being held with processing plants to learn more about their situation.
“One-third of their workforce is temporary foreign workers, so how do these plants adjust?” he asked.
“Processors understand the number one priority is the health and safety of the public,” Gavin added. “There’s no way that they would encourage temporary foreign workers unless you knew they were coming in and you were 100 per cent positive they didn’t have COVID-19.”
He imagines it would take some time to negotiate a special exemption.
He said the closure of the border didn’t come as a big surprise, but processors were hoping to have the workers in before the closure happened.
RELIANCE HAS INCREASED
Jerry Amirault, president of the Lobster Processing Association of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, said between 4,000 and 6,000 TFWs arrive every spring to help staff Maritime fish plants. Last year, even with temporary foreign workers, Amirault said fish plants were collectively short about 1,800 workers for processing lobster, crab and other seafood products.
The reliance on TFWs in recent years has increased, he said, because landings have increased. The average age of the local plant workers, he added, is increasing.
“When we bring in foreign workers, the staff that are there are relieved to see people coming in who are committed to working and helping them,” Amirault said.
He said the seafood processing industry, as well as other sectors of the food and agri-food industry, are hoping for some concessions from Ottawa.
“It’s paramount we’re focusing on public health. At the same time, we’re also focusing on food and food production,” Amirault said.
“We’re fully anticipating there is going to be an issue with health. What we’re talking about with Ottawa (is) screen them in their country of origin (and) we would work with having them isolated.”
If exemptions could be made, he said the industry would like to have the workers arrive soon.
And, even if Ottawa would agree to exemptions, Amirault said there is still a question of whether workers would be permitted to leave their home countries.
Amirault agrees with Gavin that lobsters will be coming out of the water at the normal time, pointing out the season falls between ice-out and the lobsters’ natural molt cycle.
At the end of the day, lobsters are coming out of the water: they’re going to be processed,” Gavin said. “Processing plants will be as creative as possible. They will hire everybody they can hire; everybody who wants to work, there’s a job there for them.”