Sea­sonal work: the vi­cious cy­cle

The Compass - - OPINION -

Any­one who’s ever been in a fish pro­cess­ing plant knows it’s no treat to work there. Some­times, it’s hot, some­times it’s cold—of­ten it’s wet. There are haz­ards aplenty, from knives to fork­lifts to crab asthma. It’s heavy, hard, repet­i­tive, stand­ing work.

For years in New­found­land and Labrador, it was the kind of work you wanted your kids to avoid by get­ting a good ed­u­ca­tion.

But the fish­ery marches on and gets more com­pli­cated: in­shore fish­er­men, off­shore trawlers, short, fre­netic har­vest­ing sea­sons and ag­ing work­forces. The two con­stants? Change, and the fact that the in­dus­try spends so much time hang­ing on by its fin­ger­nails.

In P.E.I., the lat­est tan­gle in­volves lob­ster pro­cess­ing and tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers.

Pro­ces­sors in P.E.I. are ar­gu­ing that eight lob­ster pro­cess­ing op­er­a­tions on the is­land need for­eign work­ers to sur­vive. Those op­er­a­tions han­dled 25 per cent of the re­gion’s lob­ster and, not in­ci­den­tally, em­ploy 1,500 Cana­dian work­ers in ad­di­tion to the for­eign work­ers.

Fed­eral Em­ploy­ment Min­is­ter Ja­son Ken­ney vis­ited P.E.I. re­cently to ar­gue—among other things—that there are un­em­ployed plant work­ers in the prov­ince, and pro­ces­sors should pay more to at­tract them to the jobs.

Ken­ney con­tends that us­ing for­eign work­ers has kept pay rates down and slowed mod­ern­iza­tion.

“I have ab­so­lutely no doubt that wages would have gone up more steeply and in­vest­ment in au­to­ma­tion would have hap­pened more quickly had it not been for ac­cess to folks from abroad at the pre­vail­ing wage rate,” he told the Char­lot­te­town Guardian.

But it’s a much more com­pli­cated prob­lem, re­gion-wide. And while Ken­ney says he doesn’t want to speak harshly about pro­ces­sors—be­cause they are eco­nomic en­gines—the sec­tor has se­ri­ous prob­lems.

Higher wages isn’t the whole so­lu­tion—it’s just another patch in a ques­tion­able quilt, be­cause the work­ers will still de­pend on off-sea­son EI. A hand­ful of weeks’ work does not a year’s salary make.

Like­wise, tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers are a stop­gap mea­sure, like ty­ing a tarp over a leaky roof.

What’s rarely ac­knowl­edged is that there are two ben­e­fi­cia­ries of EI in the seafood pro­cess­ing sec­tor: un­em­ployed work­ers and their em­ploy­ers.

Work­ers gen­er­ally end up re­ceiv­ing more in ben­e­fits than they con­trib­ute in pre­mi­ums.

For em­ploy­ers, it’s more com­plex. In many places, es­pe­cially towns with­out other in­dus­try, EI ben­e­fits al­low em­ploy­ers to keep es­sen­tially cap­tive work­forces in place for the spe­cific pe­ri­ods when they’re needed, with­out the fi­nan­cial bur­den of pay­ing them year round. It is, in essence, a sub­si­dized work­force, although no one wants to de­scribe it that way.

Ken­ney de­scribed tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers to the Guardian as hav­ing “a kind of quasi-in­den­tured sta­tus.” Well, wel­come to a world many Cana­dian fish plant work­ers live in al­ready.

Like the fish plants them­selves, it’s an oft-steamy, oc­ca­sion­ally dan­ger­ous place. And one that some­times makes lit­tle sense. Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic Re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­; his col­umn ap­pears on Tues­days, Thurs­days and Satur­days in TC Me­dia’s daily pa­pers

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