Labor shortages plague Canadian seafood processors

First published in Landings, September, 2015.

In June, 2014, the Canadian government made major changes to its Temporary Foreign Workers program. These changes have caused outrage within the seafood processing industry, which in recent years has come to rely on foreign workers for seasonally-based work. Many of those workers are from the Caribbean, the Philippines and even China.

“We want to employ Canadians. That’s what we do. The issue is that there are not enough people in these rural areas to fill the jobs that are required,” said Dennis King, director of the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association.

The Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker Program began in 1963 in an effort to help businesses that couldn’t find the specialized talent needed in Canada. In 2002, the Liberal Party, which was in power at the time, passed legislation that allowed employers in a few sectors to recruit low-skilled workers abroad.

When the Conservative Party was elected in 2006, it expanded the program, allowing thousands of low-skilled workers to enter the country on a temporary basis. Many of those people came to work in Canada’s hospitality, food-service, long-haul trucking, and seafood sectors. In 2013, the program was amended to permit employers to pay foreign workers 15% less than the local median wage, which led to more foreign workers entering the country to work.

In the same year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ran a story that showed some companies turning away Canadian job applicants in order to hire temporary foreign workers at a lower wage. The Minister of Employment and Social Development at the time, Jason Kenney, revoked the 15% discount in wages and then split the program in two, welcoming highly-skilled foreign workers and placing strict limits on the admission of low-skilled foreign workers.

As a consequence, by July 1 of this year, companies that use foreign workers can have no more than 20% on staff. By next year, that figure must be down to 10%. In addition, another law, passed in 2011, required temporary foreign workers in the country to either apply for permanent residence or leave the country when their four-year permits expired. Many faced deportation this past April.

“It’s been very hard for the seafood sector,” King said. “[Here on P.E.I.] we’ve seen a population decline as well as an aging population. It makes it very hard to find people to hire.” In June, some P.E.I. processors limited landings from each lobsterman to 1,000 pounds per day because they couldn’t handle any more lobster.

Jerry Amirault, director of the Lobster Processors Association of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, echoes King’s perspective. “Due to a rapid increase in landings, from 2006 at 150 million pounds, to 2014 at 330 million pounds, more workers had to be found. Most plants are in rural areas where there has been an outward movement to western oil-rich provinces for employment,” he said.

As Canadian lobster landings were rising, the Canadian federal government concluded new trade agreements with Europe and countries in Asia. “External Affairs [the Canadian State Department] was busy signing bilateral trade agreements and opening up new markets [for seafood]. But at the same time you just cut off our labor supply!” Amirault said. Also many young people from Prince Edward Island and other rural communities have gone on to university for higher education, freeing themselves from the need to work in a seafood factory.

“As seasonal work, it’s tough to make a good living. So in a way it’s a success story that so many of our young people are not working in the plants. But the average age is now 53 years old. We will not have workers for the future,” King said.

King and Amirault are part of the new Maritime Seafood Coalition, composed of seafood processors throughout the Maritime region. The Coalition, which met on July 29, hopes to raise awareness of the troubles seafood processors are facing f to the national level as the date of the Canadian federal election in October draws nearer. The Coalition says that although transitioning low-skilled workers into permanent residents is a good idea, those workers will only qualify to stay in Canada if employers can provide full-time employment. “Seafood processing is just seven, maybe eight months of the year,” King explained.