The number of temporary foreign workers in Atlantic Canada has more than tripled since 2005, with all four provinces seeing gains greater than the national increase of 140 per cent.

The Atlantic Provinces Economic Council notes in its new report card released on Wednesday that recent growth in the temporary foreign workers program has been concentrated in lower-skill occupations, such as fish plant workers and employees in the food service sector.

TFW chart

(Atlantic Provinces Economic Council report)

The number of temporary foreign workers in the Atlantic region grew to 10,900 in December 2012 from 3,500 in 2005, states the council.

By 2011, 23 per cent of temporary foreign workers in Atlantic Canada were in lower-skill occupations that did not require anything more than a high school diploma or two years of job-specific training.

"The number of TFWs employed in Atlantic fish plants grew from five in 2005 to 960 in 2012, with 90 per cent of these working in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island," states the report.

Of the 960 fish plant workers, 255 were working in P.E.I. fish plants.

The number of truck drivers in the program increased, particularly in New Brunswick, to 280 in 2012.

The report also notes the number of food service workers in the program in the Atlantic region grew rapidly, with 465 cooks, 430 food service attendants and kitchen helpers.

"The current trend in the TFW program represents a point of departure from Canada's immigration program which focuses on the selection of higher skilled workers," states the APEC report.

In April, growing criticism of use of the temporary foreign worker program resulted in a moratorium being put on its use by the food service sector.

The federal government indicated in its most recent budget that use of the program will become more restricted for employers in areas with high unemployment.

APEC states about 56 per cent of the Atlantic temporary foreign workers in 2012 worked outside of the six largest urban centres in the region. Unemployment rates outside of those six urban areas are approximately double the rate in urban areas.

"Employers in many high unemployment areas now face considerable challenges in recruiting new workers as outmigration has stripped many rural areas of their prime working age population," states the report.

"The recent influx of TFWs has provided a much needed boost to the workforce of several firms in Atlantic Canada, particularly those in seafood processing.

"Without access to the TFW program, employers in rural areas may find it increasinly difficult to fill available jobs, particularly since much of this employment is concentrated in lower-wage positions."

Despite the rapid growth in the temporary foreign workforce, the number of workers in the programs accounts for only one per cent of total employment in the region, compared with 1.9 per cent nationally and 3 per cent in Alberta.