Cooper Institute Distorts the Story in P.E.I.’s Lobster Industry
As advocates for Prince Edward Island’s seafood processors, we feel compelled to respond to the recently released Safe at Work, Unsafe at Home: COVID-19 and Temporary Foreign Workers in Prince Edward Island by the Charlottetown-based Cooper Institute.
Its authors used questionable methodology to promote simplistic solutions and to disparage the reputation of our members.
Over the last decade, acute labour shortages have become a daunting issue, caused by an aging workforce, a dwindling labour pool and misconceptions about our industry.
With lobster landings close to doubling during the same period, international workers have played a vital role in supplementing our local workforces and protecting local jobs by keeping our plants viable. A 2021 HR strategy carried out by the PEI Seafood Processors Association confirmed these trends will only accelerate.
Based on a mere seven interviews and a shocking disregard for the representativeness of its sampling or any attempt to verify the accuracy of the information collected, the Cooper Institute makes misleading generalizations about temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in P.E.I.
For the record, let’s clarify a few points.
First, the average starting wage in our industry is around $14/hour, well above the current minimum wage of $13/hour and that doesn’t account for overtime pay above 55 hours, as required by provincial legislation.
TFWs are treated exactly the same as local workers and P.E.I. seafood processors adhere to all provincial employment standards, including overtime, of which the agricultural sector is exempt. Indeed, we are routinely audited for compliance with the P.E.I. Employment Standards Act.
Many of our TFWs tell us they earn more money in an hour in our plants than in a whole day in their home countries, assuming they could even find a job. Exactly the same labour dynamics explain why thousands of our family members were drawn to Alberta’s oilsands for many decades: workers make such sacrifices to create a better future for themselves and support their families back home.
Secondly, we can say unequivocally that none of our workers have had to pay for costs associated with PPE or other COVID-19-related mitigation measures. Over the past 15 months, lobster plants across the Maritimes worked collaboratively with public health authorities and spent millions of dollars to keep COVID-19 out of our facilities.
While plants all over North America were sidelined by COVID-19 outbreaks during the pandemic, we have not had a single case, let alone an outbreak, in P.E.I. processing facilities.
All plants were inspected by the P.E.I. Workers Compensation Board for COVID-19-related protocols. P.E.I. was also the first jurisdiction in the Maritimes to offer vaccinations to all its workers, local and international workers alike.
Finally, contrary to what was alleged, our members are routinely audited and often inspected by government to ensure housing conditions are “suitable and affordable.” When submitting applications to participate in the TFW program, employers must provide detailed housing plans and sign a declaration with clear employer obligations in this regard.
We should all recognize that we have a major challenge with regard to the availability of affordable housing and we would welcome more active engagement with government on this issue. That’s why many processors have been actively promoting new residential construction. One of them retrofitted a tourist lodge and another a nursing home to increase affordable housing options for their workers.
As the report itself acknowledges, most of our international workers return to Canada every year, some at the same plant for over a decade. It’s worth noting that these highly-skilled workers are in demand all over North America. The fact that processors have such high retention rates, year in and year out, speaks volumes about the true working and living conditions offered to our international workers.
Similarly, the notion that we should dictate that all TFWs become permanent residents is problematic due to the seasonal nature of some positions.
If the report’s authors got out of their offices and visited the western part of Prince Edward Island, they would learn that lobster processors are already sponsoring many of their workers to become permanent residents. Literally hundreds of Maritime lobster TFWs are putting down roots in our communities with their families, boosting our school populations and rejuvenating our communities.
Having said that, we also need to acknowledge that there are significant hurdles.
Our seasonality undermines our ability to offer expanded access to permanent residency. In recent weeks, many processors have been supporting their workers to take advantage of the new accelerated pathway announced by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, but we need to stress that there are major barriers to accessibility because of constrained language testing capacity across the Maritimes.
Finally, let’s also acknowledge that some of our workers do not want to settle permanently in Canada and prefer to return to their home countries during the off-season, as they have been doing for many years.
We need to get past the mental picture of our grandparents’ fish plants.
Today’s lobster processors are modern operations that are increasingly embracing innovation and deploying advanced processing technology, exporting products around the globe and offering better working conditions for all its workers. They proved their mettle by operating large processing facilities in the middle of a pandemic since March 2020, keeping their workers safe and healthy, while successfully managing millions of pounds of lobster and other seafood supplied by Island harvesters.
We urgently need a more balanced and thoughtful discourse about the critical role of international workers. We need policies that recognize that without a stable and secure workforce, we will not be able to fully unlock the opportunities offered by our thriving lobster fishery.
All of us, without exception, want to provide a safe and welcoming working environment for our TFWs. That’s why we support strong enforcement and are open to finding ways to improve the program. It’s also why we support Temporary Foreign Worker Protection legislation to provide additional protection for workers and ensure they have a positive experience in Prince Edward Island.
With P.E.I.’s abundance of lobster, strong brand recognition and world-class processing know-how, our harvesters and processors have all the ingredients to continue being a source of prosperity in our coastal communities.
They already have to struggle against the vagaries of weather, markets and a once-in-a-century pandemic. They shouldn’t have to also bear the burden of unsubstantiated attacks and ill-conceived policies such as those offered by the Cooper Institute.
Jerry Gavin, Executive Director of the PEI Seafood Producers Association (PEISPA), representing 14 P.E.I. seafood producers
Nat Richard, Executive Director of the Lobster Processors Association (LPA), an industry association bringing together 20 Maritime lobster processors