The Nova Scotia seafood processing industry expressed concerns Thursday with changes to the federal government's temporary foreign worker program as the province's labour minister called for more flexibility from Ottawa.
Marilyn Clark, executive director of the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association, said she would like to see the seafood industry treated like agriculture and be exempted from some of the recently announced revisions to the federal program.
"There's so many parallels between agriculture and fisheries," Clark said in an interview. "The products are seasonal and they're perishable. When the season's on you have to have the manpower to get these products into processing. If you don't, you're going to lose them."
Under the new rules to the federal program, employers in the accommodation, food and retail sectors would be barred from hiring low-wage temporary foreign workers in regions where unemployment is above six per cent.
The program is mostly used by the fish and lobster processing sector and Clark said the industry is facing imminent labour shortages.
"Everybody recognizes that we have a very big future problem because of an aging workforce," she said.
Labour minister calls for TFW exemptions
Labour Minister Kelly Regan said she will argue for some industries in her province to be treated differently when she meets with federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney next week.
"We want some flexibility," Regan said after a cabinet meeting on Thursday. "Some of our fish plant owners, some of our restaurant owners, some of our tourism operators are going to have a hard time finding enough staff under these new rules."
In an email, Alexandra Fortier, a spokeswoman for Kenney, says the changes are aimed at restoring the program to its original purpose to give employers access to a limited supply of foreign workers when there are no qualified Canadians to fill available jobs.
Fortier says employers in Nova Scotia requested more than 2,300 temporary foreign workers in 2013, despite an unemployment rate of nine per cent.
Despite the high unemployment, Clark said some businesses still face challenges in hiring locally.
"We're located in rural areas where we're not close to labour pools," she said. "For the most part, these jobs are hard to fill by Canadians who are looking for better opportunities."
Regan said Halifax is the only region in Nova Scotia with a low enough unemployment rate to allow low-wage temporary foreign workers to be employed in most industries.
The protection of temporary foreign workers is also important, Regan said.
'We want to make sure that we don't hurt businesses'
The province organized a consultation process with Nova Scotia businesses and industry associations a month ago at the federal government's request, she said.
"There were some abuses [under the program], but we want to make sure that we don't hurt businesses that in some areas are having difficulty finding enough workers at certain times," said Regan.
"We're going to have to sit down and really look at this hard with the companies to see what we can do and see what they can do to deal with this situation."
Changes to the program are designed to be phased in over a two-year period and come into full effect by July 1, 2016. Besides a cap on foreign workers a business is allowed to hire, the program also paves the way for more inspections, greater fines for those who abuse the program as well as increased application fees for employers.