New Brunswick

Temporary foreign workers to be allowed back into N.B. again

Premier Blaine Higgs has dropped his opposition to allowing temporary foreign workers into the province to help out on farms and in fish plants.

Industry says lifting the ban doesn't immediately solve the problems it created

Premier Blaine Higgs says he's thinks it's safe now to lift the ban on temporary foreign workers. For some fish plants, it may be too late. (Office of the Premier)

Temporary foreign workers will be allowed back into the province starting May 29, Premier Blaine Higgs announced Friday.

They were banned from the province April 28 as part of efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The move caused a storm of criticism from farmers and fish-plant operators that rely on the workers.

Higgs said after consultations with public health authorities, he is convinced it's now safe to drop his opposition to allowing the workers into the province, as long as safety measures are respected, including quarantining for 14 days.

"We are still prioritizing the safety of New Brunswickers, but as we restart our economy we also have to find ways to meet the needs of the agriculture and seafood sectors," said Higgs.

"Our plan was to always allow temporary foreign workers to enter the province once it was safe to do so."

Farming organizations are applauding the reversal.

"We're very happy to have the skilled workforce that we know has the tools, the ability to do the jobs that we need," said Lisa Ashworth, the president of the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick.

Too late for some

Marilyn Clark, owner of Port to Port Immigration Services, an immigration consultancy office that works closely with the fisheries sector, said the news is a relief. However, it probably comes too late for the lucrative spring season.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs abandoned his ban on temporary foreign workers on Friday. The plan was originally put in place to prevent outsiders from bringing COVID-19 into the province. 3:26

"May 29 is very much late," she said. "All over the Maritimes ...  prices are falling fishermen are on quota. We needed that processing capacity. We needed it this year desperately more than any other year."

She said 60 workers already have their paperwork done, but the two-week quarantine they'll likely have to do before starting work is another delay.

"The heavy volumes of lobster come in at the beginning of the season not at the end of it," she said.

The other workers she represents won't make it until the August season.

Tim Livingstone, who co-owns Strawberry Hill Farm in Carleton County along with his wife, says he's still facing problems created by the ban on foreign workers. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Tim Livingstone, owner of Strawberry Hill Farm near Woodstock, said because of the delay, the workers he had waiting for this policy change lost their permits last week.

He said he's asked his local MP and contacted the organization that works with the Mexican government to try to find out how quickly those permits can be reinstated or reopened.

"We're still in limbo, unfortunately," he said.

Livingstone said he's had to hire and train 10 people to replace the four regular temporary foreign workers. He said that's taken a toll on his business.

"[Training] 10 new people that have never done this before is really putting us a lot of stress on us," he said. "We can't handle more of that."

If the workers' permits can be reinstated, Livingstone said he will hire them in addition to the 10 he already hired, so he wouldn't be laying anyone off.

"I know it's a very controversial issue and I don't have all the answers myself. Other than that, we're a farm trying to provide local product at a reasonable price. And it's very stressful right now as to how to do that."

Ashworth said she had hoped the ban would be dropped immediately, saying that the two-week quarantine will push work to mid-June.

This means farmers who were expecting temporary foreign workers in April may still have to find alternative arrangements.

"You can't extend the timeline into the fall, plant a little later and harvest a little later," she said. "We don't have the climate that would allow for that."

Some workers who normally come to New Brunswick have already found work in provinces that didn't adopt the same ban.

Ashworth said there are still plenty of potential temporary foreign workers, but farms will be at a disadvantage since these workers won't necessarily be familiar with New Brunswick farms.

Higgs 'very' disappointed

Higgs said earlier in the day that he was "very" disappointed more New Brunswickers didn't apply for jobs in the farming and seafood processing sectors when they became available as a result of the ban.

"We have 70,000 people who are unemployed in the province right now — 30,000 students — and we got about 200, 250 that are actually signed up for jobs and 100 or so that are interviewing," Higgs told Information Morning on Friday.

"No, New Brunswickers weren't interested in the process."

Higgs has tried to keep New Brunswick borders closed as much as possible during the state of emergency over the coronavirus, and for weeks stood firm against allowing temporary foreign workers in to work on farms and in fish processing.

The province has been exploring a couple of options for addressing the job vacancies, Higgs said, suggesting that the fire at a processing plant in Val-Comeau on Thursday could send some workers to fill other vacancies nearby.

"They are in touch with the other processing plants to have the employees shift immediately into other areas where they're needed," said Higgs.

Farmers and seafood processing plant operators have said they rely on temporary foreign workers to make their businesses work and were skeptical from the start that New Brunswick residents could take their place.

"It's clear that the response that we've received to fulfil the many jobs that are available in the province was not as anticipated," said HIggs.

"In that light I said that I would ensure we would fill the jobs required both for the processing plants and the farming and agriculture side."

Farmers, seafood plants struggling

At news conference yesterday, three provincial farming groups warned that 2,000 acres on 18 farms could go unplanted, with the loss of millions of dollars, if foreign workers are not allowed in.

Meanwhile, one lobster processing plant has hired more students, including some as young as middle school aged.

They expect this means they will only be able to process about half as many lobsters as they usually do.

At a briefing on the coronavirus Friday, Higgs said there was no plan to offer any compensation for sectors that were impacted by the lack of temporary foreign workers.

He also appeared to question the need some employers said they had for temporary foreign workers.

"We had people that all of a sudden said "I need temporary foreign workers' who never made any applications," said Higgs.

"So you kind of say, 'Where did that list come from?"

'A broken system'

Higgs appeared to blame the federal employment insurance system in part for the weak interest in the seasons jobs among New Brunswick residents.

"We have a broken system in our insurance program, where 10 weeks is the limit and everybody is happy if they get 10 weeks," said Higgs.

The all-party Covid task force reconvenes to consider New Brunswick's next phase of recovery.  Premier Blaine Higgs, Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers, Green Party leader David Coon, and People's Alliance Party leader Kris Austin. 22:25

"We have a broken system. For years we've been afraid to deal with it."

With files from Information Morning Fredericton, Hadeel Ibrahim & Jordan Gill

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.