St. Mary’s Smokehouse fears losing foreign workers at fish plant

A fish processor in Nova Scotia’s Guysborough County says changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program will make it hard to fill jobs, as locals don't want them.

Too few Canadians willing to take jobs in Sherbrooke fish processing plant

Of the 40 people on staff at St. Mary's Smokehouse, 23 are from outside of Canada. (CBC)

A fish processor in Nova Scotia’s Guysborough County says changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program will make it hard to fill jobs, as locals don't want them.

The federal government says companies like St. Mary’s Smokehouse can't renew the contracts of temporary workers from the Philippines because the unemployment rate in Sherbrooke is well above six per cent. Company President Marg Harpell says she can't find enough Canadians of working age to fill the orders.

“We have a limited workforce to draw on in the municipality,” she said. “The population is only 2,300 in total. Over 50 per cent of that population is over age 55. It leaves a very small workforce to draw against.”

Of the 40 people on her staff, 15 are from the Philippines and eight are immigrants who are permanent residents of the community.

They earn between $11 and $15 an hour and receive health benefits. But even on the Eastern Shore, where unemployment rates are above 14 per cent, few locals want the work.

Ecum Secum resident Bob Hanlon says he’s mystified. “If we've got Canadians out of work, put them to work first," he said. 

Harpell said there aren't enough locals willing to work at the plant. “When I came here, there were 10 people working here. Now there’s 40 people, yet the population of the area has decreased and the ones who are still here have gotten much older.”

Faye DespaBeledara came from Philippines as a temporary foreign worker, but has become a permanent resident.

After a long separation, her two children and husband recently moved to Sherbrooke. Her children go to the local school and her husband works as a cleaner.

“This is my fourth year and they come here July 26 last year,” she said. “Last year we have a good Christmas, very good.”

Harpell said they are counting on the province to convince the federal government that fish plants in remote areas need similar rules to farmers, who may still hire foreign workers.