The Liberal government has quietly approved changes aimed at helping Atlantic Canadian seafood processors that will allow them to bring in unlimited numbers of low-skilled temporary foreign workers to fill seasonal jobs this year.
Ottawa approved the foreign-worker exemption in response to lobbying from Atlantic seafood processors and Liberal MPs, who warned that recent restrictions to the temporary foreign worker program were hampering business. New Brunswick Fisheries Minister Rick Doucet recently said the labour shortage in his province is so bad that some lobster processing plants have had to throw lobsters in the trash.
The Liberals – who swept all 32 ridings in Atlantic Canada in last year's federal election – are justifying the exemption as a short-term measure to buy time until a full review of the foreign worker program can be conducted later this year.
Other industry groups – such as Restaurants Canada – are questioning why exemptions are being allowed for some sectors and not others, and why they were never told of the change.
The House of Commons finance committee recently heard from a wide range of industry associations, including the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, that requested a loosening of restrictions to the program.
The temporary exemption comes as Finance Minister Bill Morneau prepares to deliver a budget on Tuesday that will outline the federal government's response to rising unemployment caused by the decline in Canada's energy sector in Western Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador, which has long been a source of work for thousands of Atlantic Canadians.
The change was made without a formal announcement or news release on Feb. 19 and is effective until the end of the year. The exemption allows an employer in any seasonal industry to bring in an unlimited number of temporary foreign workers, provided the work period is less than 180 days. Employers must still make efforts to find Canadian workers.
A similar exemption had been granted last year under the former Conservative government, but it capped the number of workers, was limited to 120 days and was used only by the seafood sector.
"We've heard from groups across Canada that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program needs to change, including from businesses," Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk said in a statement to The Globe and Mail. "A small number of businesses in certain sectors tell us they need more flexibility to meet their work force needs.
"The previous government promised to fix the problem in July, 2014, and never did. They gave these businesses an extension last year but didn't address the issues. In February, we granted a one-time extension to help these businesses meet their work force needs, just as the previous government did, and we will finally address the underlying issues."
The issue relates to sweeping reforms of the program that were introduced in 2014 by the Conservatives in response to a few high-profile cases of abuse by employers. Those reforms meant that employers in the accommodations, food service or retail sectors could no longer access the program in regions where unemployment is greater than 6 per cent.
Other sectors were initially forced to limit the percentage of temporary foreign workers to 30 per cent. That cap was scheduled to be reduced gradually to 20 per cent in July, 2015, and then a further reduction to 10 per cent on July 1 of this year.
It is that cap that has now been waived for seasonal sectors, while the other restrictions remain.
"I'm discouraged that it's only select sectors that are getting singled out for special treatment, particularly when there are other businesses in areas with much lower unemployment that are being denied," said Joyce Reynolds, Restaurants Canada's executive vice-president of government affairs.
At the time of the Conservatives' 2014 foreign worker reforms, then-employment minister Jason Kenney specifically questioned why Prince Edward Island fish processing plants were bringing in foreign labour when potential workers in the area were collecting employment insurance.
"There is not a shortage of fish processing workers," Mr. Kenney said during a 2014 appearance at a Canadian Chamber of Commerce meeting in Charlottetown.
Atlantic seafood producers strongly reject those claims, arguing that the short seafood processing seasons come at the same time as other seasonal industries, such as agriculture and tourism, are competing for available labour.
Producers argue that temporary foreign workers are desperately needed for short periods of time and that they are not able to find Canadian workers to meet that short-term demand.
"It's going to be hard to entice people to move to Prince Edward Island for 10 weeks' work or 12 weeks' work at a fish plant for 12 bucks an hour," said Craig Avery, president of the PEI Fishermen's Association.
Mr. Avery was among a group of industry officials who met in January with Ms. Mihychuk and other Liberal MPs in Ottawa to make their case for an exemption. He said the Liberal sweep of Atlantic Canada was likely a factor in persuading the government to make a change.
"I'd like to think it helped us," he said. "You put people in there to represent you and everybody in Atlantic Canada supported the Liberal government, so I think they felt they had to do something to give back."
Dennis King, executive director of the PEI Seafood Processors Association, said foreign workers are needed to complement local staff at the plants, but the industry is aware that the exemption is politically sensitive.
"I think everyone's been reluctant to talk much about it because it's been such a volatile issue," he said.