N.B. students as young as 13 fill lobster processing jobs left by barred temporary foreign workers

“Business as usual” is a saying that’s out the window for many in the face of COVID-19 challenges, but that rings especially true for seafood processing plants in New Brunswick.

The slashed market demand was a concern for fishermen as the season approached. Factoring in the provincial government’s decision to restrict temporary foreign workers from entering the province due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and it wasn’t looking bright for the industry.

“We’re down to half capacity,” says Westmorland Fisheries owner Russel Jacob. “Meaning there’s going to be lobsters left on the wharves with no homes.”

Replacing new job vacancies left by the foreign workers are some locals, Jacob says, most of whom are students.

Of about local 235 workers, most of whom have been there for many years, approximately 40 students have been hired. More teenagers are applying daily, Jacob says.

“It’s certainly different,” he says.

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Monday marked day two of processing, he said. Sunday provided some challenges with more training and a younger crew.

“The landings were extremely good,” Jacob says. “We got more lobster than we wanted, but we got through them and today’s another day to move forward.”

Of the teenagers recently hired, one is 13-year-old Yannick Donelle. Instead of finishing his Grade 8 year in class, he’s putting in eight hour days at his first summer job.

“Russel’s son is one of my best buddies,” Donelle tells Global News. “He started working here and I wanted a summer job so I thought it was a good place to go work.”

Jacob says the students are working reduced hours and that it would take two or three people to replace a temporary foreign worker.

Since the ban was announced, Premier Blaine Higgs has said New Brunswickers out of a job due to COVID-19 could and should step up to fill the need. The premier is hoping more people will come forward, but at Friday’s COVID-19 briefing, he expressed concern over the lack of interest.

“Personally, it’s a disappointment, if out of 70,000 (unemployed) people, we’re not able to meet the demands that are a fraction of that.”

Jacob says application numbers are low this year, in part due to the fact that many people are still getting paid, even if they’re not working, he says.

“(It’s) very hard to get people in this year because of the EI and the CERB.”

As far as getting new employees to start in the processing sector, the Lobster Processors Association of New Brunswick & Nova Scotia says the damage has already been done.

“Our problem is they’re not trained and by the time we got them trained to the level our previous workforce was, the season would be over,” Jerry Amirault, the association’s president told Global National.

But Jacob says students need to be given credit. While many people are sitting home, they’re heading to work, he says.

“It’s definitely a life lesson,” Donelle says.

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