Importing workers from Thailand to staff a fish plant in eastern Newfoundland speaks volumes about chronic problems in a business that has long been top-heavy with processing capacity, an industry official says.
Quinlan Brothers recruited about 20 Thai workers to process crab and shrimp at its plant in Bay de Verde, at the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula, after a series of recruitment ads failed to find enough workers closer to home.
"It was inevitable," said Derek Butler, executive director of the Association of Seafood Producers, remarking Monday on the fact that a local processor recruited internationally to solve a job crunch.
"We're talking about a symptom now. We need to talk about the structure."
The issue falls on the heels of the federal government's desire to revamp employment insurance, requiring some claimants to take local work if it becomes available in their geographic area.
But Butler said Quinlan Brothers' decision says much about the fishery, which for decades has been known to have too many fishermen and companies chasing too few fish.
"The real issue is the structure of the business," Butler told CBC News.
"There's overcapacity in both the harvesting and the processing sides. If we're going to give people incomes that are respectable, if we're going to make this industry more viable — both ecologically and economically — then we have to deal with the structure of the business," he said.
Butler noted that seafood processing companies in the Maritimes have for years imported workers to keep their operations running, with more than half the workforce at plants in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island coming from either other provinces or outside Canada altogether.
'The experiment's been done'
Closer to home, Butler said the fishery is still managed for social policy rather than left to sink or swim like any other private business.
"We [need to] stop using the fishing industry as the supposed saviour of rural Newfoundland, because it can't do that," he told the St. John's Morning Show.
"The experiment's been done … We've see the fruit of those policies, which is the lowest birth rate in North America in our rural communities. We can't save rural Newfoundland on the basis of one industry."
Meanwhile, in Bay de Verde, residents are far from unhappy that Quinlan Brothers tapped into the Thai workforce to find workers to keep the plant running.
"I guess they got to fill the jobs if they want the crab [processed], don't they?" crab fisherman Ralph Meadus said while he unloaded his catch.
"They have to get workers, and if they can't get workers here, they'll have to go outside to get them. I won't begrudge them the opportunity to come here, if they won't begrudge me going fishing over there sometime."
About 400 people work at peak times at the Quinlan Brothers plant in Bay de Verde. With just 400 residents in the community, the workforce has always included commuters.
Bay de Verde Mayor Gerard Murphy said people in the community who want a job already have one, and noted that many people who are technically unemployed — that is, are collecting EI benefits — are employed in other parts of the country.
"Some people are working on a shift basis with so many weeks out of the province and returning for so many weeks," said Murphy.
"We also have individuals that have a certain season in which their work exists outside the province and when they return it's their down-season, and they know they will be heading back in the fall again, to return to their regular schedule."
Murphy acknowledged that local workers have adapted to the EI system, for better or worse.
"If the system is designed in such a way for an individual to take advantage of it, and by advantage I mean that in a positive way, I think it's human nature that you would," he said. "If it's to your advantage to work within the system, as it exists, I think people would naturally do that."