New Brunswick

Middle and high school students to process lobster after temporary foreign worker ban

With lobster processing set to begin Sunday, desperate New Brunswick seafood plants are turning to high school and even middle school students to fill the gap left by temporary foreign workers.

New Brunswick plant owners say processing will move to Nova Scotia and P.E.I.

Russel Jacob, owner of Westmorland Fisheries in Cap Pele, said he had about 25 high school and middle school students in orientation at his plant Thursday. (Submitted by Russel Jacob)

With lobster processing set to begin Sunday, desperate New Brunswick seafood plants are turning to high school and even middle school students to fill the gap left by temporary foreign workers.

The decision by the Higgs government to block foreign workers amid the coronavirus pandemic has left processors in the province saying they have only about half the workforce they need, while counterparts in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are ready to go "full tilt."

"[The province] pulled the rug from under our feet," said Russel Jacob, owner of Westmorland Fisheries in Cap Pele.

Premier Blaine Higgs said unemployed New Brunswickers and students on summer break can fill some of the 600 job vacancies that were to be filled by foreign workers.

But Jacob describes a virtual job fair launched by the province this week as a waste of time and money that brought "zero" results.

He said he had about 25 high school and middle school students in orientation at the plant Thursday.

Lower expectations

The students will start work Monday, when they will be assigned the easiest jobs, Jacob says.

His own 13-year-old son will be among them.

"When they all heard my son was working, well then word got around and they started applying," he said. "It's good money for them, but it's only a patch, temporarily, for us."

A pre-COVID-19 group photo on the Westmorland Fisheries recruiting page shows the flags of several countries, including Jamaica. (Westmorland Fisheries)

Middle school students must have permission from their parents and will make about $13 an hour.

High school students will be paid about $15 an hour.

Jacob expects they will not perform nearly as well as the experienced foreign workers.

Lobster season in eastern New Brunswick begins Friday, with processing expected to kick off Sunday.

A few kilometres away in Grande-Digue, Luc Doiron of Suncoast Seafood says that in many cases, high school students do not last more than a few days.

Doiron was able to add only five or six New Brunswickers to his workforce to replace 120 foreign workers who were turned away two weeks ago.

Some university students among recruits

He managed to recruit a further 20 students from Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia who will complete their quarantine on Monday.

COVID–19 emergency rules say out–of–province workers with proof of employment may enter New Brunswick, but must self-isolate once here for 14 days prior to commencing work.

He expects his plant will at best be able to achieve 50 per cent of its normal production levels.

"Our competition in Nova Scotia and P.E.I., they have all their workforce because they've been able to bring in their foreign workers," said Doiron. "So they are going to be able to go at it full tilt, while we're going to have to be limiting our access."

Doiron says 60 per cent of his best workers have been coming to the plant for the past five years from Mexico. They took jobs in Nova Scotia after learning they could not enter New Brunswick.

He fears he will now lose them for good to Nova Scotia processors.

In a statement Thursday, spokesperson Erika Jutras of New Brunswick's Department of Post–Secondary Education, Training and Labour, said a new fisheries labour force adjustment committee is working closely with industry to identify solutions.

"We are working with many employers through WorkingNB and have contacted university students as well," said Jutras. "We are also promoting these opportunities to EI and [Canada emergency response benefit] applicants."  

About the Author

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726 Connell.smith@cbc.ca

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