There’s a uniquely international atmosphere in the bustling fishing community of Bay de Verde these days.
About 20 workers from Thailand are employed at the local seafood processing plant in what many believe is a first for the Newfoundland fishery.
Officials with the company that operates the plant, Quinlan Brothers Ltd., say they were forced to look outside the country after extensive recruiting efforts closer to home came up short.
“We would prefer to hire locally, and we put lots of effort into it. Unfortunately, the company was not able to get the contingent of workers it needed,” company spokesman Gabe Gregory said Monday.
About 450 people are employed at the plant, making it one of the busiest inshore processing facilities in the province.
The company experienced some labour challenges last season, and identified the need for 50 additional workers.
Despite what Gregory described as an “aggressive” recruiting effort, it was able to find only 30.
It was later granted approval by the federal government to bring in temporary foreign workers to make up the shortfall, Gregory said.
They arrived last month, and are being housed in company-owned accommodations in the area. Gregory expects they’ll be on the job until the fall, when the fishing season ends.
“They are now gainfully employed, doing various processing jobs,” he explained.
Location a challenge
According to the 2011 census, the population of Bay de Verde is just under 400. During the fishing season, its population swells dramatically.
The company has been able to attract workers from various regions of the province, but several factors have contributed to the shortage, Gregory said.
He pointed to an aging workforce, a shrinking population in rural Newfoundland and the fact most young people are choosing not to work in the fishery.
The plant’s location may also be a factor. Bay de Verde is located in a sparsely populated area at the tip of the Bay de Verde Peninsula, 66 kilometres north of Carbonear, and 90-plus kilometres from Bay Roberts. This makes it difficult for workers to commute. Since the jobs are seasonal in nature, and pay roughly $12 per hour.
The company also competes with other processing plants in nearby Old Perlican and elsewhere in Trinity South for employees.
The timing is raising some eyebrows, and questions were being asked after news of the foreign workers started making headlines late last week.
Just last month, the provincial government received written notification of the permanent closure of seven seafood processing plants throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, resulting in hundreds of job losses. And the unemployment rate for the Avalon Peninsula was 14.4 per cent in April.
Gregory blamed a “failure of public policy” for creating the situation in Bay de Verde. He said the fishery is “highly regulated” by both levels of government, with the goal being to employ a maximum number of people for the shortest period of time in order to qualify for employment insurance benefits.
As a result, the fishery has become very seasonal, making it difficult for people to move to where the jobs are, he said.
“Right now it’s about getting more people on the (EI) books,” he said.
He expressed some hope a series of controversial changes to the EI system will help the industry. But he also predicted the company may have to bring in foreign workers again.
“This kind of requirement could grow. It depends on how quickly the industry can transition to meet its labour needs,” he said, adding that each year, five to eight per cent of the workforce reaches retirement age.
He said the industry will either have to enhance the productivity of the current workforce, or “bring people into the rural communities.”
An official with the Fish, Food and Allied Workers’ (FFAW) union stated publicly this week that the company was being permitted to import “cheap labour.”
FFAW offshore vice-president Allan Moulton said it would create a “two-tiered system” and would “do nothing to build our economies and communities.”
“It’s creates a huge gap that drives wages down,” Moulton told VOCM Open Line Monday.
Fisheries Minister Darin King said the provincial government would consider measures to help the situation.
“If there are opportunities for other jobs, in other communities, then we’re prepared to work with those displaced workers to assist them in getting transportation and arrangements and things like that,” King told CBC News.