P.E.I. businesses welcome changes to temporary foreign worker program

P.E.I.'s seafood processing industry says it's "extremely happy" with changes that will make it easier for businesses to hire and keep temporary foreign workers.

Federal government unveiled changes last week

Employees at a seafood processing plant in St. Anthony are seen processing northern shrimp during the 2016 fishing season. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

P.E.I.'s seafood processing industry says it's "extremely happy" with changes that will make it easier for businesses to hire and keep temporary foreign workers.

Last week, the federal government announced changes to its Temporary Foreign Workers Program which are meant to help industries currently facing labour shortages.

As part of the changes, there will no longer be limits on the number of low-wage positions employers in seasonal industries such as seafood processing can fill with temporary foreign workers. 

In addition, the number of days the workers can stay in this position has been increased from 180 days per year to 270 days.

"Every year we had to ask for an extension to allow the workers to stay up to 270 days," said Jerry Gavin, executive director of the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association. "There will be no need to continue to ask [for] that extension, so we're really pleased with those changes.

"What it means is that hopefully we will have enough workers in place this spring to process the lobsters coming in from the spring harvest and, of course, the fall harvest as well. And even for our mussel operators, we're seeing there is an increase in demand for the products. In some cases they are looking at temporary foreign workers as well."

'Serious labour shortage'

Starting next month, employers will be allowed to hire up to 20 per cent of their workforce through the program for low-wage positions as opposed to just 10 per cent.

A few sectors such as food services will be allowed to hire up to 30 per cent of workers through the program.

"[The changes] are targeted more towards processing, which is a critical part of the industry, so they will be beneficial," said Donald Killorn, executive director of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture.

The federal government is expanding Canada's temporary foreign workers program, but critics say conditions for low-wage workers need to improve. Matt Galloway talks to Marie-France MacKinnon, vice-president of public affairs and communications at the Canadian Meat Council; Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change; and federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough.

"We have a serious labour shortage. It's impacting acutely agriculture, but it's felt, I think, across the economy right now … The Temporary Foreign Workers Program is a tool that we can use to alleviate some of those labour shortages." 

The federal government says temporary foreign workers made up less than 0.4 per cent of the Canadian workforce in 2020. Gavin said his industry expects about 700 temporary workers to come to P.E.I. this year.

In the meantime, some advocates calling for better conditions for temporary foreign workers have criticized the changes, saying they do nothing to protect the workers while allowing more people to be exploited.

Gavin said the federal government has established a new consultation roundtable whose priority will be discussing worker accommodations.

"We support strong enforcement, strong inspections being done out there. We want to see compliance," he said. "We certainly welcome [the roundtable] and we hope that we'll be a part of those discussions and the ongoing dialogue."

With files from Angela Walker