Expanded foreign worker program praised, but more hiring help needed, businesses say
Fish plant owner Mario Cormier says application process too burdensome, with long approval wait time
Some New Brunswick business representatives say the expansion of the temporary foreign workers program is a step in the right direction.
They also say Ottawa still needs to do more to make it easier to hire foreign workers in response to critical labour shortages.
"So everything that was said, that was announced, I agree with it. It's a plus," said Mario Cormier, owner of M & M Cormier, a fish plant near Cap Pelé.
"It's just, it's a step in the right direction but [the federal government] still got to go further."
About 100,000 temporary foreign workers come to Canada each year, under the federal program, which allows employers to hire them if no Canadian or permanent resident is available.
On Monday, Employment and Social Development Canada announced that sectors experiencing labour shortages will be allowed to hire more employees from abroad, and in some cases those employees can stay longer under the temporary foreign worker program.
Those include companies in seasonal industries such as the seafood processing sector, which are no longer subject to a cap on the number of "low-wage" positions that employers can fill through the program.
Additionally, foreign workers hired by those companies will be able to work for a maximum of 270 days per year, up from 180 days.
Speaking on Wednesday, Cormier said the federal government's process for companies to employ temporary foreign workers involves too much "red tape."
He said just getting his application approved took four months.
In an industry where employees often come and go on a whim, that's too long, he said.
"If I get people that come in to work, they work for five weeks or 10 weeks and after that they decide they find some another job or they get sick or something like that, I need to replace them.
"If I go through that immigration process, it takes me six months or nine months, or a whole year before I get another worker to come in, replace them. That's a problem that we're facing. That's a big problem that we're facing."
Cormier said he's been in the business for 18 years and started noticing a slump in the number of locals showing up at the company's office looking for work about five years ago.
Unable to find enough local workers back in 2020, he applied to hire four temporary foreign workers for the 2021-2022 season.
They arrived last August, but a fire at one of his herring smoke houses that same month forced him to arrange alternative employment for the employees because he was no longer able to offer full-time work.
Looking ahead at returning to full production capacity in the future, Cormier said he expects he'll have to hire foreign workers again.
"So we're in a situation that we need we need immigration…. and we need the system to be more easy to get it," he said.
The move by the federal government is a positive step toward filling gaps in the labour market, said Joel Richardson, vice-president of public relations for Cooke Aquaculture.
The company operates year-round and so doesn't use the temporary foreign worker program to hire employees, but Richardson said it shows Ottawa is realizing that companies need more help finding workers.
At the same time, he said, the federal government could be doing more to help companies like his, such as easing English proficiency requirements and allowing foreign workers to submit their biometrics after arriving in Canada.
He said of the 150 job vacancies the company currently has in Atlantic Canada, about 100 are in New Brunswick alone.
"There's been some concerns by the business community, in the employer community over the years that the requirements for immigration and newcomers may be too restrictive," Richardson said.
"And, you know, so we've been certainly part of the business community encouraging the federal government to ease some of the restrictions that they've had, like language requirements, for example, on newcomers coming in, and the business community certainly is prepared to be able to do language training with individuals that come in and help newcomers get settled into the communities where they operate."
Growing use of temporary foreign workers in N.B.
According to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the number of temporary foreign workers coming to New Brunswick every year has steadily grown, from 1,020 in 2015, to 2,430 last year.
That increase reflects the growing challenges businesses have faced hiring locals in recent years, said David Campbell, former chief economist for the provincial government.
"It's getting really, really hard to find people that are willing to work these jobs, whether it's agricultural labourers or fish plant workers," Campbell said.
"Again, the wages aren't great, but, you know, the reality is they're creeping up. You can make 16, $17 or $18 an hour in a fish plant now … so it's not a terrible wage, but it's hard work and a lot of people, a lot of New Brunswickers don't want to work those jobs."
Economic development consultant Richard Saillant of Moncton said the labour problem isn't so much an issue of people being unwilling to work, but more the fact that rate of people retiring is greater than the rate of people entering the workforce.
"Right now, we're facing real needs," said Saillant. "We have an aging population."
About 12,000 people reach the age of 65 annually, compared to 8,000 who turn 15.
"That's that's going to stay that way for another eight years or so until the turn of the decade," Saillant said.
"So this is one of the reasons why we need so many people in this province."