P.E.I. industries hope national COVID-19 restrictions are flexible for temporary workforce
‘We were certainly caught off guard with this’
P.E.I.'s agriculture and seafood processing sectors are hoping new rules for international travellers don't hinder this year's temporary foreign worker program.
International travellers arriving in Canada will soon have to go to one of four airports: Montreal, Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver. Charter flights will no longer be allowed to deplane at Moncton, N.B., and Halifax.
When visitors land, they will have to quarantine for three days at their point of arrival at their own expense before travelling on to their destination, according to a new COVID-19 public health measure announced by the federal government last week.
Those restrictions are raising concerns for industries on P.E.I. that rely on the temporary foreign worker program.
"It's that three extra days that people are kind of focusing in on. What does that mean? Who pays for that?" said Robert Godfrey of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture.
If a producer is bringing 20 workers into the country, shouldering that isolation cost would quickly become a large expense, Godfrey pointed out. He said that workforce is crucial in filling the labour shortage in the agricultural sector —and he would like to see Ottawa cover the cost for those isolation days.
Our first day of strawberries last year, where we were supposed to have, you know, upwards of 12 workers from away, we had one.— Matt Compton
"Those three extra days are important. They're important to Canadians, they're important to farmers that we have that labour. So they should come to the table and cover the cost," he said of the federal government.
Last year, all temporary workers who came to P.E.I. quarantined at a central location, and didn't have to isolate at their point of arrival before heading to the Island. Once their 14 days were up, they would report to their workplaces.
That system was working well, said Matt Compton, a farmer based in Summerside.
"It made our lives so much simpler. We could continue to be farmers," he said.
Those workers are an important part of Compton's operation. He said there was a delay last year in getting workers here, and that could have been problematic.
"Our first day of strawberries last year, where we were supposed to have, you know, upwards of 12 workers from away, we had one," he said.
'We need that extra workforce'
Compton said luckily he was able to access some workers from the local labour force on P.E.I. but it just wasn't enough to cover the gap.
"It's just not enough for the scope of our crops that we grow, to manage it fully. So we need that extra workforce from away that brings their experience, their talents and their dedication to making their crop, you know, a successful harvest."
The struggle in getting workers to the Island last year is something that the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association is hoping to avoid this year.
"At the end of the day, the temporary foreign workforce probably comprises upwards to 30 to 40 per cent of our workforce in any given year," said Jerry Gavin, the association's executive director.
Despite an uncertain start to the 2020 season, he said the system put in place ran extremely well last year, with workers coming in by charter to Halifax or Moncton before coming to P.E.I.
'It's a logistical nightmare'
When he heard about the new restrictions last week, Gavin was surprised.
"We were certainly caught off guard with this. So, again, it's going to be a real challenge for us. It's a logistical nightmare."
With the spring lobster season just around the corner, members are extremely worried, said Gavin.
"It's the unknown. I mean, a week ago, things looked not too bad. But now with this travel restriction before us, the members are really, really concerned that they're going to get their workers in time. So that is a big issue. There's a lot of angst in the sector right now."
Last year worked really well. There were no issues with COVID-19, with temporary foreign workers whatsoever.— Jerry Gavin
Gavin said since Montreal is the closest airport to Atlantic Canada accepting international arrivals, there's also the question of how to get them into the region, once those mandatory three days of quarantine are completed.
All of that also comes with additional cost, said Gavin, and processors are hoping for some flexibility from Ottawa.
"You look at last year, last year worked really well. There were no issues with COVID-19, with temporary foreign workers whatsoever. And they made such a big difference to the plants here on the Island and elsewhere," he said.
"Why can't we do the same this year?"
In an email statement, a spokesperson for the government of Canada said it is "looking at how to integrate these measures for specific essential groups, like temporary foreign workers, as the implementation plan is developed.
"This will help ensure we are supporting both workers and Canada's food supply. We will share more information when it becomes available."