Lobster processors in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia say they've given up trying to convince the federal government to change the rules of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and will look instead for other solutions to the chronic worker shortage.
The processors have argued capping the number of foreign workers who can be hired will force them to move jobs out of the region, due to the aging workforce and shrinking population.
Representatives of their association met with provincial and federal officials last Friday in Charlottetown to discuss the fact that lobster catches have doubled in the last 10 years to about 330 million pounds, but the number of people willing to process the lobster continues to drop.
"All we know is during the height of our season, mid-June, our plants in New Brunswick were looking at 500 or 600 employee vacancies,” said Jerry Amirault, who represents several dozen fish plants in the Maritimes.
Amirault says temporary foreign workers currently represent about 27 per cent of the 4,000 people working in the plants. At some plants, the ratio of temporary foreign workers is as high as 65 per cent, he said.
Want exemption like farming sector
But under the new rules, the plants will have to reduce their share of temporary foreign workers to 10 per cent by 2016.
And the situation will only get worse as the Canadians who are left in the industry retire, he told CBC News on Monday.
"Our average [age] is somewhere between 54 and 57 … That generation will be gone."
If the plants stop processing, the fishermen can't fish, said Amirault.
He says it's unfortunate the industry wasn't able to convince the federal government that fishing is in the same situation as agriculture, which will continue to be able to hire temporary foreign workers.
"They've been able to demonstrate back in the 60s their chronic labour shortage was based on seasonal work," Amirault said.
"This is seasonal jobs that you need to be at home ready to be called out to go to the work, and then come back, and then be called out again, and then you may be there for perhaps 10 or 20 days straight," he said.
Amirault says the plants are having trouble finding Canadians willing to do the work. They identified about 100 unemployed people in various communities and approached them about working in processing, but only about 60 of them showed up for orientation and only 30 showed up when the work started.
Now the industry is trying to hire students or aboriginal people, or bus people in from other communities.
The average wage fish plant worker can make $17 to $25 an hour with bonuses after one month of training, he said.
The industry is also trying to replace workers with machines, Amirault said.