Employment Minister Jason Kenney's changes to the temporary foreign worker program are drawing criticism from Maritime labour ministers concerned the lobster and seafood industry will be dramatically affected.
The ministers are comparing the fishery to the agriculture industry, which is exempt, and allowed to employ the temporary workers. They have not asked for an outright exemption for the fishery.
However, they argue that like agriculture, certain fisheries have a harvest time and their work force is aging and from rural communities that are becoming increasingly depopulated.
(What is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program? Read The Globe's easy explanation)
Mr. Kenney's changes, announced last month, would phase out over three years the use of temporary foreign workers at fish processing plants.
The minister is to meet next week with his provincial counterparts from across the country in Charlottetown. It's expected he will get an earful.
"I haven't found a minister anywhere in Canada who is happy with it," said PEI's Innovation Minister Allen Roach, who will play host. About two hours have been set aside to hear from Mr. Kenney and question him about his controversial plan.
"Everybody is kind of in shock as to why it was turned into such a crisis to begin with," Mr. Roach said.
In Alberta, for example, a Conservative MP is calling for an exemption for the province, which relies on temporary foreign workers, because of labour shortages. Candidates running to become Alberta premier have all criticized the changes, accusing the federal government of punishing the province. One candidate said restaurants will have to be closed on Sundays and the wait in line for a coffee will increase from five minutes to 20.
On PEI, meanwhile, the accusation is that the government is targeting the fish industry.
"I'd like to hear more about what kind of investigation they've done into the seafood processing industry to single them out like that, especially when they are so similar to the agriculture industry," Mr. Roach said.
Mr. Roach says the average worker on the line in a seafood processing plant is more than 55 years old, usually living in a rural community with a declining population.
"In talking to a lot of seafood processors, they liken their situation very much to the agriculture sector," he said. "It's an industry, again like agriculture – they are having difficulty attracting younger people … younger people are choosing to [do] other things," he said.
Mr. Roach notes that some fish plants now rely on more than 30 per cent of temporary foreign workers, who come mostly from Japan and the Philippines.
Last year, PEI had the highest lobster landings in history at 28.7 million pounds, and a value of $91.3-million.
According to Mr. Kenney's changes, fish processing plants can have "up to 30 per cent of their work force at a work site comprised of temporary foreign workers and have three years to transition."
Nova Scotia's Labour Minister Kelly Regan is calling for flexibility from Mr. Kenney.
"Our concern is there may be some fish plants that have great difficulty in getting in the harvest and dealing with it quickly if they are not able to have temporary foreign workers," Ms. Regan told The Globe and Mail. "We're going to have to look at this much closer … it makes it difficult in smaller communities where we have had so many people leave …"
She wants more time to consult with businesses in the province for a clearer understanding on what their needs are. Ms. Regan does not want a situation where a fish harvest is in danger because of a lack of workers to haul and process the catch.
On Nova Scotia's eastern shore, Stewart Lamont, owner of Tangier Lobster Co. Ltd., says right now he could not find five additional workers, even at $20 an hour, to employ at his plant.
He exports live lobsters to 19 countries from Tangier, N.S.
Although he is not employing temporary foreign workers yet, he says "We know the day is probably coming."
He employs between 20 and 25 people, who earn between $14 and $18 an hour.
This year, there was a huge lobster catch in Nova Scotia – but the downside of that, he notes, is that some plants did not immediately have enough workers to process it all.
He says the entire region suffered as a result of that as lobster inventory built up and the market diminished "because we didn't have enough employees in critical operations to get the job done in a timely fashion."
"That's what it is coming to and that's why I think some of the issues are very similar in the hospitality and restaurant trade," he said. "None of these operations have enough cooks. Well, I'm sorry if you don't have enough cooks, it's going to come home to roost."