In what is believed to be a first in Newfoundland and Labrador, foreign workers have been brought in to work at a fish plant in the province because of a shortage of available labour.

About 20 Thai workers are now on the job at the Quinlan Brothers crab and shrimp processing facility in Bay de Verde.

Gabe Gregory, a spokesman for Quinlan’s, says the hiring of temporary foreign workers followed a long and involved process.

"The fact is that the company has demand for labour, and wasn’t able to fulfil it this past winter locally, and really is left with no other choice but to take these kind of avenues," Gregory told CBC News.

Bay de Verde, NLBay de Verde, N.L.

Quinlan’s advertised "extensively" throughout the province for the jobs over the past fall and winter, Gregory said.

The rate of pay is in the $12-an-hour range, which Gregory says is competitive within the industry.

While the company was successful in getting some employees, the new hires came up short of the number needed.

"That’s what prompted them to move forward with this program," Gregory said.

Bay de Verde is located 90 kilometres north of Bay Roberts, near the northernmost part of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula.

The unemployment rate for the entire Avalon Peninsula region was 14.4 per cent in April.

Gregory said there were a number of factors that led to the move, including a general population decline and greying of people in the area.

"The workforce in the fishery, and for Quinlan’s in Bay de Verde, is no different than the demographics throughout the industry," Gregory noted. "They’ve been challenged with dealing with maintaining a workforce in a rural community where the population is aging."

He said it’s difficult to get people to relocate from one rural community to another, and younger people are not choosing the fishery for a career as they did in the past.

"I think we all know the reasons behind that," he noted. "The fishery has been declining, and the work has become highly seasonal, relatively speaking, as to what it was back in the ’80s and early ’90s. So it’s not been an attractive place for young people to get employment."

Gregory is declining to draw a direct link between the Bay de Verde situation and the Harper government’s recent announcement that it will tighten EI eligibility rules for seasonal workers.

But he is hopeful the pending changes may help.

"For a long time people have been calling for reform of EI programs, and hopefully some of these changes will assist the fish processing industry."

Minister 'not aware'

At an event in St. John's on Saturday to promote the Newfoundland and Labrador government's science and research efforts, Fisheries Minister Darin King said he was "not aware" that foreign workers had been brought in to Bay de Verde.

Last month, the government received final written confirmation that seven fish plants in the province have been declared permanently closed.

That list includes plants in five communities where different owners have said since December that they cannot keep the plants open.

"If there are opportunites for other jobs, in other communities, then we're prepared to work with those displaced workers to assist them in getting transportation and arrangements and things like that," King said.