Nova Scotia

Chronic labour shortage hobbling Meteghan lobster plant

David Deveau is doing everything he can to find and keep local workers for his modern lobster processing plant in Nova Scotia, but it is a battle he is losing.

Riverside Lobster runs 5 buses daily to bring workers in from Digby and Yarmouth

Riverside Lobster employs 300 people processing 27,000 kilograms a day of fresh and frozen lobster. (Robert Short/CBC)

David Deveau is doing everything he can to find and keep local workers for his modern lobster processing plant in western Nova Scotia, but it is a battle he is losing.

"We do have great local people here. I love them all. I respect them all," said Deveau, CEO of Riverside Lobster International in the Meteghan area.

"I don't have enough. I just don't have enough."

Deveau's company now operates five buses daily to bring workers in from Digby and Yarmouth. Workers are paid about $13 per hour and enrolled in a defined contribution pension plan and get health benefits.

100 more employees needed

The plant, which employs 300 people processing 27,000 kilograms a day of fresh and frozen lobster, is chronically short between 20 to 30 workers.

David Deveau is CEO of Riverside Lobster. (Robert Short/CBC)

The situation is slowing two expansion projects, including a plan to turn shells into higher value products.

"With a few projects on the go and aiming to add on, we're looking for another 100 people if we could," said Deveau. 

"It's a challenge for sure. Yes, we have a problem."

Feds 'listened and reacted'

It's labour shortages like the one facing Riverside Lobster that prompted the federal government to create the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program in late January.

Starting in March, the three-year pilot will allow employers, for the first time, to offer a job and a direct path to permanent resident status to skilled, semi-skilled and international graduates.

Riverside Lobster currently employees 22 temporary foreign workers. (Robert Short/CBC)

It's the kind of flexibility businesses in the region have been seeking for years. The region suffers from outmigration and an aging population.

The pilot has earned praise from Deveau, a self-described Tory.

"This government has been good. They listened and reacted," he said.

Mexico, Chile to the rescue

Riverside now employs 22 temporary foreign workers. About seven per cent of Deveau's workforce is mostly from Mexico and Chile. 

Deveau said spending time and money to bring in Mexican and Chilean labour is something that was forced on the company, but it has worked out and is about to get better.

Riverside operates five buses daily to bring workers in from Digby and Yarmouth. (Robert Short/CBC)

"We had great success with them. The attendance is perfect, their work ethic is to perfection. It is a breath of fresh air to have them in our operation."

Deveau said Riverside will be applying for permanent resident status for some of its foreign workers who will also be allowed to bring in family members.

How it works

Under the pilot, each of the four Atlantic provinces decides which employers are eligible.

Each province must vouch for the authenticity of the job offer. There must also be no qualified Canadian candidates available and a mandatory settlement plan for each applicant in place.

Workers at Riverside are paid about $13 per hour and enrolled in a defined contribution pension plan and get health benefits. (Robert Short/CBC)

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is responsible for evaluating the applicants.

In 2017, a total of 2,000 applications — which include the worker and any accompanying family members — will be accepted.

In the first year, spots are being apportioned by population. Nova Scotia is getting 792, New Brunswick is getting 646, Newfoundland and Labrador is getting 442 and P.E.I. is getting 120.

Use it or lose it

In a background briefing, the Nova Scotia Office of Immigration said interest in the pilot goes beyond the fish plant.

The office said it has heard from dozens of businesses interested in the pilot, including the information technology sector.

The challenge now is to take advantage of the opportunity Ottawa has extended.

On Friday, the pilot project will be discussed at a conference hosted by the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia at the Prince George Hotel in Halifax. About 100 employers are expected to attend.

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.