© THE GUARDIAN/Heather Taweel
Fisheries Minister Ron MacKinley, left, shakes hands with P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association executive director Dennis King, centre, and P.E.I., Fishermen’s Association executive director Ian MacPherson at a news conference in Charlottetown Friday.
The P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association and the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association have united in calling for a reversal of Ottawa’s sweeping reforms of the temporary foreign worker program — reforms they say will have a devastating impact on the Island’s seafood industry.
Dennis King, executive director of the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association, says a growing number of challenges have made it difficult to find enough workers in P.E.I. to work in fish plants.
“The processing sector on P.E.I. operates during our peak employment period,” King said.
“Finding local workers in communities where populations are declining, outmigration is prevalent and workers are aging is a serious, ongoing challenge.”
One of the many changes to the TFW program announced last month is a cap that will be placed on the number of low-wage temporary foreign workers an employer can hire at any one 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.
But in some lobster processing plants in P.E.I., upwards of 50 per cent of their employees are migrant workers.
Without access to temporary foreign workers, King says some processing facilities are in grave jeopardy of closing.
This will put hundreds of Islanders out of work.
“The policy to put Islanders to work by reducing the access to temporary foreign workers will have the reverse effect with plant closures,” King warned.
Lobster fishers have also expressed grave concern about the potential reduction of processing capacity on the Island as a result of potential loss of migrant workers.
This spring, a shortage of temporary foreign workers led to quotas being imposed on lobster fishermen during the Island’s limited spring fishing season.
“As primary food producers in Canada it is critical that our product can be processed in an efficient and timely manner,” said Mike McGeoghegan, president of the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association.
“The challenges of this past spring have been a lost economic opportunity for P.E.I. and Canada.”
The two associations issued their rare joint statement on the eve of the federal-provincial meeting of labour ministers in Charlottetown Friday. The TFW program reforms were debated during the meeting.
Several other provinces raised similar concerns about the changes.
P.E.I. seafood processors are currently undertaking a preliminary labour market review. Processors are also participating in ongoing discussions with processors in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia who are expressing similar concerns about the chronic labour shortage facing the industry.
“No one can argue with the spirit of a policy that wants to put Canadian workers first,” King said. “However, this is an industry that is worth more than $300 million annually to our province. We need to be certain that the workers are indeed there, either through the local labour force or a foreign worker program that meets the needs of the P.E.I. fishing industry.”
On Friday, P.E.I. Innovation Minister Allen Roach relayed these concerns to federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney.
He asked Kenney to look at the evidence that supports the need for the changes in P.E.I., and Kenney agreed.
But he did not mince words in his feelings over the growing use of this program in provinces like P.E.I. with ongoing high levels of unemployment.
“Let’s just put it this way,” Kenney told reporters in Charlottetown Friday.
“I would hope that any part of Canada with double-digit unemployment through much of the year, that we can get Canadians to take those available jobs as opposed to bringing people in from abroad.”