In 2007 Bill Barry, a well-known figure in the Newfoundland fishery, said that foreign workers would be a part of the Newfoundland seafood processing industry in five years time.
Well, it’s five years time and Barry’s ominous prediction has come true.
In May of this year Quinlan Brothers, following an exhaustive and aggressive advertising campaign over this past winter to find workers in Newfoundland, hired 20 workers from Thailand to work at the company’s crab/shrimp operation in Bay de Verde.
Gabe Gregory works as a management consultant for the Quinlan Brothers.
Gregory said that at the start of the advertising campaign, the company needed 50 more workers for its 2012 operation in Bay de Verde. They managed to fill 30 of the positions in the province but needed to go through the federal government’s Immigration Canada’s foreign hiring policy to fill the remaining 20 jobs.
Gregory said that there might be a number of reasons why the company could not attract Newfoundland employees to the jobs despite the fact that the unemployment rate for the entire Avalon Peninsula was 14.4 per cent in April.
He pointed to an aging workforce, a shrinking population in rural Newfoundland, and the fact that many young people are choosing not to work in the fishery.
The company also competes with other processing plants in nearby Old Pelican and elsewhere in Trinity South for employees.
Gregory said, “While they are many displaced plant workers in the province, the reality is that it’s challenging for people in one remote rural area to go and work in another rural community which could be hundreds of km away.
“It’s a tough decision that some people go for but others don’t want to make.”
Gregory blamed a “failure of public policy” for helping create the situation in Bay de Verde. He said that the fishery is “highly regulated” by both levels of government with the goal being to employ a maximum number of people for the shortest period of time in order to qualify for employment insurance benefits.
As a result, the fishery has become very seasonal, making it difficult for people to move to where the jobs are, he said.
A spokesperson for the provincial Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture said that while the government would like to see all jobs in the seafood processing industry filled by Newfoundlanders, they don’t want to see any company fold because it can’t operate due to a lack of employees.
The spokesperson said that Quinlans advertised for months and had to prove to Immigration Canada that there was no local labour available to fill the 20 positions.
Despite a fairly large number of displaced workers in the seafood processing industry, the utilization of foreign temporary workers by Newfoundland companies is now a reality and Quinlans followed all the federal rules in hiring the workers from Thailand.
Earle McCurdy, the president of the FFAW/CAW in Newfoundland, said that while the federal government controls the allocation of temporary workers to Canada, the provincial government could play an important role in the issue.
McCurdy said, “I have proposed to the government’s cabinet committee on the fisheries that when a plant closes down the government, in addition to work projects and retraining programs, should have a package in place to help people in situations like this.
“A lot of the displaced plant workers out there are in an age group and/or of an educational background where they may not see retraining as feasible.
“If government offered a program to help those people with transportation costs to another place of work and with accommodations, this could entice those people to take job positions employers are looking to fill.
“It seems to me that a program like this, which could be cost-shared by the government and industry, would be much cheaper than bringing in workers from Thailand.”
McCurdy noted however, that the recent foreign hirings in Bay de Verde could be a sign of things to come.
“In the long run, when you look at our aging population in Newfoundland and Labrador it holds true that we will generate more jobs than we will be able to fill from our population base.
“It seems to me however that the program would be better if those immigrants were encouraged to become Canadian citizens to help us become a more productive and a much stronger society than in just bringing them in as temporary workers.”