Why the industry says temporary foreign workers are essential to seafood processing

As lobster season gets underway, finding and keeping employees to work in the lobster plants is still a challenge for many. Temporary foreign workers are very much needed to keep plants operating.

Royal Star Foods in Tignish, P.E.I., expects to employ 60 foreign workers this year

Workers process lobster meat at Royal Star Foods in Tignish, P.E.I. (Laura Meader/CBC)

As lobster plants gear up for another processing season many of them will depend on foreign workers to stay in business.

The Royal Star Foods plant, in Tignish, P.E.I., runs two full shifts of employees who work from 6:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. The plant needs about 375 workers and expects to have about 60 foreign workers this year, mostly from the Philippines with a few from Mexico. 

Francis Morrissey, manager of Royal Star Foods, says foreign workers are critical to his plant, which sells P.E.I. lobster to many international markets. 

"Without them we don't have a business," he said. 

Francis Morrissey, manager of Royal Star Foods, says foreign workers are a critical part of the business. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Morrissey said he feels OK about the number of workers at the plant, but it's tough to know until the season really gets going. 

He said he often worries if there are enough workers to do the job because if there aren't they can't process the number of lobsters they need to. 

"Everybody suffers, the plant suffers, the fishermen suffer, and the province suffers," he said. 

"Without workers, you don't have anything." 

New program could help

Morrissey said this will be the first full season the plant can benefit from a new express-entry pilot program that allows workers to apply to stay in Canada. 

"It gives them an opportunity to hopefully bring their family," said Morrissey.  "The workers that are here are really happy."

We're not hiring these people because we don't want to hire locals, the problem we have is we're in a rural part of the province where the population has declined.- Francis Morrissey, manager, Royal Star Foods

He said it's hard for workers to be far away from their home and their family. 

Immigration rule changes are part of a federal-provincial initiative announced last summer — the program makes it easier to attract immigrants and offer them permanent residency. 

"We're hoping if we treat them well enough they will stay with us," Morrissey said.

A costly process

Morrissey said with federal government fees, agency fees and plane tickets, it's an expensive process to bring in workers.

"We're not hiring these people because we don't want to hire locals, the problem we have is we're in a rural part of the province where the population has declined," Morrissey said. 

"We don't have the younger people entering the system." 

'They've been the lifeline essentially,' says Dennis King, executive director of the Seafood Processors Association, about temporary foreign workers. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

The plant also has a bursary program to attract student-workers and flexible hours for employees with families.

"We do whatever we can to hire whoever we can," said Morrissey. 

Morrissey said base wages start a little over $13 per hour, plus vacation pay and overtime pay when required. 

'They've been the lifeline'

Dennis King, executive director of the Seafood Processors Association, said there are about 1300-1400 employees working in the lobster plants on the Island. He said temporary foreign workers are key to keeping plants going and said P.E.I. needs to maintain its number of foreign workers. 

"They've been the lifeline essentially," said King. 

Numbers from the Government of Canada show 492 temporary foreign workers were approved for 2017, this year's numbers weren't available. 

King said plants are doing what they can to attract workers but there just aren't enough locals. He said the foreign worker program is needed. 

"Many of our facilities wouldn't be operating without it." 

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Laura Meader is a video journalist for CBC P.E.I.