P.E.I. groups call changes for temporary foreign workers 'encouraging'

Islanders involved with temporary foreign workers are encouraged by changes to the program just announced by the federal government.

'This is definitely a victory for folks who have been working for this specific change'

Seafood processors on P.E.I. say the changes will help them build a more consistent workforce. (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press)

Islanders involved with temporary foreign workers are encouraged by changes to the program announced last week by the federal government.

The government has scrapped the cumulative-duration rule — also known as the "four-in, four-out" rule — which limited how long temporary foreign workers could stay in Canada. After four years, the worker would have to leave Canada for four years, or stay as a student or visitor.

Dennis King says the changes will benefit seafood processors, as they will have more consistency in the workforce. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"One of the challenges to staff a plant is to find quality employees that are familiar with the industry so when their time limit would run out for a temporary worker we would then have to go through the whole process to retain another one," explained Dennis King, executive director of the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association.

King said the changes are not perfect, but "encouraging".

"We've been trying really hard for the last couple of years to put some consistency around the temporary foreign worker file," said King, who estimates there were around 250 temporary foreign workers at P.E.I. processing plants in 2016.

'They want to remain here'

The federal government also announced that seasonal industries, such as seafood processing, are exempt from a cap on temporary foreign workers for up to 180 days in 2017. The 180 days was a change introduced in 2016, up from 120 days.

Immigration minister John McCallum said the government is also committed to "further developing pathways" to permanent residency for temporary foreign workers.

Changes to the temporary foreign worker program will allow them to work for 180 days in seasonal industries again in 2017. (CBC)

That's also good news for seafood processors, says King.

"For the majority of the workers that have come here to P.E.I., many of them really really like it, they want to remain here," said King.

"Labour is a big issue for the industry, and when we have some good quality employees it would be fantastic to have them here and to be full time residents of P.E.I."

Years of lobbying

The changes to the temporary foreign worker program are being applauded by Josie Baker, who works with the Cooper Institute and the Coalition for Migrant Workers Rights Canada.

Three years ago, Baker helped some of the workers on P.E.I. to start lobbying for changes to the "four-in, four-out" rule.

Josie Baker of the Cooper Institute applauds the changes to the program. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

"It was something they were dealing with," explained Baker.

"They wanted to stay and support their families, and this was something that was forcing them out of a community that they'd become a part of."

'Dashing the dreams'

The "four-in, four-out" rule, explained Baker, was particularly challenging on P.E.I. where most temporary foreign workers on P.E.I. are in seasonal industries.

"If you worked 8 months, that didn't count as 12 months except that wasn't how it came into play," said Baker.

"It's really been dashing the dreams of a lot of people," Baker said.

Josie Baker of the Cooper Institute leads a workshop on temporary foreign workers in Murray Harbour. (Julia Cook/CBC)

Still a victory

However, Baker says the changes are "too little, too late" for some temporary foreign workers who were forced to leave P.E.I. when they reached the four year mark.

"A lot of Canadians are not really aware of what it takes to get a visa to come to Canada for work especially from countries that are considered third world.

"It's an incredibly in-depth and expensive process that people would have to start all over again."

Baker is now looking forward to seeing what other changes the government proposes for the program, which she hopes will include open work permits, not tied to one employer, and more opportunities for temporary foreign workers to become permanent residents.

"But we claim the victories when we can so this is definitely a victory for the folks who have been working for this specific change."

The O'Leary girls, as they called themselves, are a group of temporary foreign workers from the Philippines. (Submitted)