Offshore labor comes with a price for some businesses in Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Stephen Stewart, mussel grower and owner of Stewart Mussel Farms, Inc., located in the New London Bay area, learned that lesson the hard way. Stewart spent months working with immigration to bring in 11 Sri Lankan men to work in the plant and on the mussel farm, only to have these men sneak off in the middle of the night to Ottawa. It wasn’t just the time, but the $50,000 it cost him to bring the workers to PEI, and provide paid airfare back to their country.

Stewart had his problems trying to get locals to work in an industry where the job means heavy lifting and cold, wet conditions. As an employer, he has heard all kinds of excuses…like “My boots are still wet from yesterday.”

Trying to entice Prince Edward Islanders to work in these conditions at $10 an hour, when they can find work in Alberta with a starting wage of $28 an hour in most jobs, meant looking far afield.

PEI has seen an exodus of 3,000-plus people to Alberta over the past year, making it tough for the island’s two main industries, agriculture and fisheries, to find willing and able workers.

So Stewart opted to do what several farmers and fish plant operators have done in recent years: bring in migrant workers.

“We harvest [mussels] year round and fall is our really busy time when we put out the new socks,” says Stewart.

He spent part of the $50,000 renovating a house for the Sri Lankan men to live in. When they didn’t show up for work one morning, he investigated and found the house empty — the front door wide open. Empty, that is, of people, but all belongings and passports were left behind. “They were here a month and obviously had a plan in mind when they came here,” says Stewart.

Doing some of his own detective work helped him follow the path these men took. “They had contacted a cab company in Charlottetown as early as two weeks after they got here,” he says. (The local cab company, Co-op Taxi, said they had no comment on the issue when asked.)

Immigration told Stewart these people have done nothing illegal. That has Stewart angry and concerned. “Even if they had this plan to go to Ottawa and split up, as I’ve found out they have done, I’m concerned about Immigration bringing in people who can do this,” he says.

“We [Stewart and his wife, Julie] would appreciate any kind of compensation toward the expenses we incurred. But at a minimum, we want these people dealt with and deported to ensure that the hard earned tax money of all Canadians will not be spent supporting their stay in Canada,” says Stewart. He adds his own warning: “We can only hope they are not connected to any terrorist organization. These foreign workers lied and scammed us and these types of immigrants should not be allowed to stay in our country — I feel immigration should be working to intercept them.”

What Immigration has told Stewart is if these people plan to go to the headquarters in Ottawa and claim refugee status, they wouldn’t want to be caught with any belongings.

Hence, they left everything behind.

A spokesperson for Immigration indicated that the Sri Lankans have done no wrong as far as the rules indicate. Because they signed a contract with Stewart, they are not allowed to work for anyone else, but according to the spokesperson, they have all the same rights as any other Canadian under the Charter of Rights and Freedom. Jon Stone, director of Media Relations for Citizenship and Immigration in Atlantic Canada, indicated these 11 men underwent a very intensive check before being granted Work Visas. “We work to provide the maximum assurance that workers will do what they were hired for,” said Stone, adding that he sympathizes with Stewart about the unfortunate situation. “They were granted visas to work for Mr. Stewart and we believe they fulfilled all their obligations,” he said.

When question about the length of the term of the employment these Sri Lankan men signed up for, Stone said they have the right to refuse work “like any other Canadian.”

Of course they are not yet Canadians. Stone noted there are thousands of migrant workers in Canada and that they undergo intensive background and family checks. He believes the system is working well. “Maybe these people have an ulterior motive, maybe not, but our first priority in screening people is to make sure they pose no threat to the Canadian public.”

All these assurances have not eased the sting of losing 11 workers and being out-of-pocket $50,000. “I’ve heard they were able to get on a list to come here by paying someone under the table…I’ve heard they are connected to the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist group in Sri Lanka, and I’ve heard just recently that some have already claimed refugee status and are being taken care of by the Canadian government until they get them through the system…that could take two years,” said Stewart.