It’s a summer Wednesday at Ucluelet Harbour Seafoods.
The stink of fish wafts through the air as the sound of an industrial ice machine hammers on and a cheery rotation of line workers clad in gumboots and Hi-Vis coveralls take repose on the concrete boat dock for lunch.
Ucluelet’s major fish processing plant is livelier than usual. Humpdays are for weekly shift crossovers, plus the 60-or-so employees are in a notably chipper mood thanks to the au gratis char-grilled burgers they’re getting served.
Who doesn’t like getting a free meal, especially when it’s the boss who’s cooking it?
Dave Dawson, general manager of Canadian fleet operations for Ucluelet Harbour Seafoods parent company, Pacific Seafoods, is based out of Nanaimo. But he regularly makes the trek to Ucluelet for meetings, and to man the grill for the crews.
Who’s hungry? GM Dave Dawson supplies UHS plant workers Kevin Elliott and Herb Mountain with a meaty lunch at a staff appreciation barbecue in July.
“We have a program on both shifts [night and day] that if the crews meet their output target we buy them lunch,” Dawson said. “Let’s have a celebration and have a barbecue and show them that we appreciate them. We are doing a lot of adjustments to make the people like this as a great place to work. We want them to feel healthy and happy, we want them to feel like they are part of the family and part of a team.”
Fish processing is an essential pillar to the small Vancouver Island town’s economy, but one facing some hearty labour force challenges.
At a $14 an hour starting wage for a 12-hour slog shift, recruiting and retaining staff is constantly an issue. Even more, busing workers in from Port Alberni has become the norm thanks to a lack of accommodation in the tourist town.
Frozen fish sticks for China
According to information amassed by the Ucluelet Chamber of Commerce from the 2016 Canadian Census, manufacturing is the community’s second largest employer, providing 180 jobs. About 85 per cent of those are in fish processing. The “seafood preparation and packaging” industry within the manufacturing sector is about 100 times as concentrated locally, while fishing jobs are 37 times the B.C. average, notes Chamber of Commerce report.
UHS processes roughly 500,000 pounds of hake per day. At the plant, the hake is machine headed, gutted, and tailed. It is then frozen and packaged into either 10-20 kilogram blocks or Individually Quick Frozen. The majority of the product is then trucked or barged to Vancouver for shipment to foreign markets.
China has emerged as the dominant export market, according to the Offshore Pacific Hake in Canada Economic Impacts report compiled for the Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society in June 2018. China reprocesses the blocks into fillets.
Eastern Europe and South Africa join China as important markets for the export of Pacific Hake from Canada, according to the BC Ministry of Agriculture.
The Ucluelet site owns four company boats and contracts seven private vessels, employing about 35 full-time fishers including the skippers. They have two processing facilities in Ucluelet: UHS, which employs between 65-70 people per shift, and the Barkley Plant, which staffs an additional 45 to 50 when it’s running.
Factory workers on the night shift are projected to process 90,000 tonnes of finished product per shift while day shift staff aims for 125,000 tonnes of finished product.
In 2016, UHS was awarded the Diamond Award from Oregon-based Pacific as its best-performing division. Pacific Seafood operates more than 38 processing and distribution facilities from Alaska to Texas.
No home by the sea
Despite the plant’s Pacific Rim location, the majority of its workforce comes from Port Alberni, more than 90 minutes by bus.
For day shift workers like Kyuquot First Nations Joe Jules, that means leaving Port around 6 a.m. and departing Ucluelet at 8 p.m.
“It’s quite a journey,” said Jules who has been with UHS for more than a decade. “It’s like a three-hour commute. It makes for a long day, but you get used to it after a while.”
Long-time UHS employee Joe Jules.
Fellow Port Alberni resident and UHS staffer Alison Mcgee agreed.
“It makes for a long day, but a lot of people in Ontario do it,” she notes.
Before signing on with UHS to help with administration and scheduling, Mcgee said she used to drive herself to Parksville for work.
“I was spending $400 on gas and parking. Now, you don’t have to have a vehicle to work here. You don’t have to drive. You don’t have to have gas money squirreled away,” said Mcgee.
The Port Bus is one incentive to recruiting employees, points out Ucluelet team member manager Sam Sattar, while pointing out how the bus costs quite a bit of money to operate.
It’s a necessary investment though to a lack of Ucluelet-based workers. The reason is simple: the town’s affordable housing crisis means they have no place to live.
“There used to be a pretty steady supply of staff that lived in Ucluelet. But then when the US dollar strengthened as it did, Ucluelet became a target for US ownership, for summer housing and sport fishing. Who doesn’t want to spend some time here and paddle in a kayak or go walk the trails? It just took the price of housing in Ucluelet and put it out of reach for most people,” Dawson said.
According to Sattar building its own staff accommodations will be a number one win. UHS is in the process of applying to the District for a temporary use permit to build low-cost, temporary housing on a piece of land they own close to the Ucluelet factory.
“It’s going to solve a lot of our employee issues,” he said.
“Our thoughts are maybe put some ATCO trailers, but we have to work with the [District] and probably make them a little more West Coast,” said Dawson, adding that he is in the process of hiring an engineer to flesh out their application to municipality.
The problem isn’t limited to fish processing. Many employers in the area linked housing shortages (among numerous other root causes) to attraction and retention issues, reports Joey Rotenberg, a local facilitator with the Ucluelet Business and Employment Retention and Expansion (UBERE) program. Since the initiative launched in Jan., 82 businesses have participated in interviews.
Preliminary data shows that 46 per cent of employers report attraction issues, 56 per cent of employers report retention issues, and 46 per cent of employers noted that attracting qualified employees is a barrier to the growth or successful operation of their company.
“Some employers provide staff housing and others sidestep the issue by marketing jobs to jobseekers that have secured local housing,” Rotenberg said in an email.
And some look further asea.
Fishing for talent in foreign waters
South Pacific Islander Roy Prasad switched over from Fiji time to Vancouver Island time about five years ago. With a talent for filleting fish, Prasad applied for a UHS recruitment ad he saw posted in the local Fijian newspaper.
“[Ucluelet] is beautiful. It’s a change, like winter, right. Fiji the weather is mostly warm, but it’s good to be here,” Prasad said at the appreciation barbecue.
He didn’t do the journey to Canada alone; UHS employs about 15 Fijians.
“We came here to filet fish,” said Prasad. “It’s a good company to stay. They look after us very well. You work good for them and they are good to you.”
Fijians Fili,left, Jonagani, Sevuloni, and Roy live and work in Ucluelet.
Some Lower Mainland plants rely on temporary help agencies to supply workers, states the Hake in Canada report.
General manager of Ucluelet operations Ben Beens has been working in the fish industry for 24 years. Even with the current roster of 45-50 workers per shift, he thinks more people are needed to maximize production.
“We hold some of our boats back from fishing because we don’t have enough man-power to process all the fish. And we’re not the only ones,” said Beens.
“Whether it’s the food industry or hospitality, we’re all short staffed. Local accommodations would help, but at the end of the day there are just not enough workers in the labour market to meet the demand.”
An Aug. 9 press released issued by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), states an estimated 397,400 jobs have sat vacant for at least four months. The vacancy rate is the highest ever observed by the CFIB’s Help Wanted report since its inception in 2014.
B.C ranked the second highest with a at 3.4 per cent job vacancy rate or 62,200 unfilled jobs, while Quebec climbed to the top spot with 3.9 per cent or 109,600 unfilled jobs.
According to the Hake in Canada Economic Impacts report, the Canadian offshore Pacific hake seafood industry holds 562 jobs in full time equivalents, $33.5 million in Wages and Benefits, and the industry directly generates $85.4 million in CDN revenues. First Nations individuals comprise 20 per cent of the total employment base.
Even though there is “rampant turnover” in some plants, according to the Hake in Canada report, Jewel Verkaik has been with UHS for the past eight years.
“The pay is good,” she said “It’s rewarding when you get in the swing of things. I enjoy the job that’s why I haven’t left.”
Sattar acknowledges that the Ucluelet plant does get a lot of turnover. The job is physically exhausting and requires a lot of standing, after all.
“But we have a darn good core team here and they will not give up on this place. They love it. They love the culture, the fishing industry culture. They have their heart and soul in it,” he said.