Seasonal work: the vicious cycle
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 email@example.com; his column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in TC Media’s daily papers