The Prince Edward Island Seafood Processors Association  (PEISPA) is attempting to address a lack of suitable accommodations for fish plant workers.

Michael MacInnis, executive director of the association, cites a lack of workers and competition from other sectors as part of the problem of finding workers for the industry in Canada’s smallest province.

But more important is the lack of a good transportation system. Hence, the need to set up accessible accommodations near processing plants. “One major issue we deal with here in PEI is the lack of a good transportation system”¦especially to rural communities,” said MacInnis.

The executive director of PEISPA says the industry has tapped into a lot of workers in the Charlottetown area who are interested in working in the seafood industry, “But (these people) do not have the means to get there (to the plants).” Charlottetown is the province’s capital city.

An employment officer, Judith MacQueen, who works closely with MacInnis for the PEISPA, has been successful over the past year in organizing car pooling and working with plants to organize busing. “But we can’t get everybody into a transportation system,” explains MacInnis.

PEI has 42 registered seafood processing operations, with 99 per cent of those being in rural areas, most of them coastal. “Or biggest plant is Ocean Choice in Souris. They invested in a busing system last year [2007],” said MacInnis.

Other larger plants are Royal Star in Tignish, Acadian Fisherman’s Co-op in Wellington and The Mariner in Montague.

According to MacInnis the industry employs about 2,500 people annually, and in some cases, people living close to plants come back year after year. Still, at least 600 people need to be recruited each year. “Last year our office was successful in recruiting 250 people and not all those people worked out to be long-term,” he said.  

Some plants could run two shifts at certain times of the year but cannot get the people. Now with extended funding from the provincial government and the Atlantic Shrimp Fund, McQueen has been working on a database of accommodations and acting as a liaison between plants and potential employees to address the labor shortage.

 “We have workers coming into PEI, and we have plant managers looking for workers. With the database of accommodations, people can just pull up the site and go through the housing themselves,” said MacQueen. The website, he added, makes it easier for people to see what is available in different localities.

Offering shifts up to 60 hours at about $9 to $10 an hour, people from the surrounding Atlantic region are checking out the site. In fact, there have been “hits” by people in the Philippines and Asia. “Newcomers to PEI are contacting us as well. Although we have not been involved with any major recruitment of foreign workers, we’ve created a data base, recruited workers and are building an awareness for workers of accommodations available,” said MacInnis.

Len Currie, General Manager of Confederation Cove mussel plant in Borden (PEI), noted that although the database has had no impact on their hiring process, getting enough workers has been a struggle. “Seafood and agriculture are suffering from the same problems and any idea of expansion is a scary thought,” said Currie. Getting workers to commit to year round work at $9 to $10 an hour, he said, is getting harder and harder. He cited long hours, a poor work ethic and competition from call centers as factors in hiring and keeping people in seafood processing plants today. “They just decide they don’t want to do it anymore,” he said. Currie hopes he can be one of the people taking advantage of the new database for accommodations.

MacInnis agreed the labor issue is a major concern. “It’s not just the housing issue, but the labor issue. We are not solving all the problems all at once, but a central body like this employment office is certainly very much needed in terms of pushing the issue forward,” said MacInnis.

He added that competition from other sectors and the stigma of working in a fish plant are problems for the industry, but that fish plants are not the old, wet and cold places they were 20 or 30 years ago. “Most have improved significantly and we need to build on the pride of the industry in PEI,” he says.

He pointed out that 20 per cent of the Island’s exports come from the seafood processing industry. “Fishing is one of our oldest industries and it is something that drives the island economy. We are creating a product here that is known and respected around the world and I don’t see that level of pride where we need it.”

MacQueen and MacInnis agreed that competition from other sectors such as call centers offering comparable wages takes away valuable workers from the seafood industry. “Call centers are not an integral part of our economy. They will come and go. Our seafood industry is here to stay.