Foreign worker break for seafood sector a ‘one-time’ deal

Winnipeg | Reuters –– Canada’s move to loosen restrictions on hiring foreign workers for East Coast seafood plants was a one-time decision, and the government is not convinced other sectors need similar measures, the country’s employment minister said Thursday.

The Liberal government eased restrictions under its foreign worker program recently for Atlantic seafood processors, allowing them to bring in unlimited numbers of low-skilled, temporary foreign workers this year, the Globe and Mail reported on Thursday.

Processors have complained about a dire labour shortage. Other sectors — notably meat packing, agriculture and restaurants — have made similar complaints about a dearth of workers.

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But Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk said she views the shortage of seafood plant workers as unique, so the government made a “one-time provision.”

“Industry said, ‘We’re going to lose opportunity to process our products, please help us.’ That’s exactly what we did,” the minister said in an interview in Winnipeg.

The government expects those processors to now develop longer-term plans to hire Syrian refugees and permanent Canadian residents, she said.

Other sectors would have to show “a really compelling case” to get the same flexibility, the minister said. If there are nearby Aboriginal communities with high unemployment, those people and other Canadians should get opportunities first to work in sectors with labour shortages, she said.

Canada unexpectedly shed jobs last month, pushing the unemployment rate to a nearly three-year high, Statistics Canada said last week.

The former Conservative government tightened restrictions on Canada’s temporary foreign worker program in 2014, after politically embarrassing news reports that foreign workers had displaced Canadians at some McDonald’s restaurants.

The program had been designed to help provide labour for the once-booming resource industry. But its use by the low-skill fast-food industry raised questions about whether this was good for the economy or fair to Canadians who could not find work.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won government in October, and swept electoral districts in the Atlantic provinces.

The government plans to start a full review of the temporary foreign worker program soon, Mihychuk said.

Rod Nickel is a Reuters correspondent covering the agriculture and mining sectors from Winnipeg.

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