It’s time to end the shortage of foreign food workers in Canada

posted on October 11, 2016

By Mark Wales and Mark Chambers, Globe and Mail |

By Mark Wales and Mark Chambers, Globe and Mail |

In Canada, we can be thankful and proud of a food system that provides us with abundant, healthy, safe and affordable food. Canadian farmers and our processors, with the help of a skilled agricultural work force, feed 37 million Canadians. We are also the world’s fifth-largest agri-food exporter. Canadian farmers, processors and workers contribute $100-billion and close to 7 per cent toward Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The food we buy in the grocery store relies on people: farm and food businesses and workers who plant, grow, harvest, prepare and package Canada’s agricultural products. Unfortunately, farmers and processors struggle to find enough workers. Research conducted by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) shows a critical gap between the demand for workers and the supply of available workers. This gap has doubled in the past 10 years to approximately 60,000 workers. By 2025, the labour gap is expected to grow to 114,000 workers. The job vacancy rate for the industry is higher than any other industry in Canada, 7 per cent. This is resulting in $1.5-billion in lost sales.

Farmers and processors hire Canadians first. If Canadians are not available, the Agriculture and Agri-Food Labour Task Force (LTF), made up of representatives of Canada’s food value chain, including seafood, proposes the creation of an “agriculture and agri-food work force program.” This plan would be about fairness. It would allow for an immigration pathway to permanency for farm and food workers, along with common-sense fixes to programming that make sense for farmers, agricultural workers, primary processors and Canadian consumers. Agriculture workers make up the majority of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, so an agriculture and agri-food program makes good sense.

The recruitment of agricultural workers is continuous, and wages and benefits in the agriculture industry are competitive. For example, Saskatchewan farmers pay $25 an hour for workers to drive combines but still have trouble finding workers. The LTF is eager to roll up its sleeves and get to work with the government on a Canadian agriculture work force action plan.

Parliament’s Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (HUMA) conducted a review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Its report recently recognized that a “labour gap … exists in the agriculture and agri-food industry, despite significant recruitment and retention efforts. This labour gap is due to the rural locations where the industry operates, as well as to the seasonal, physical and strenuous nature of the work that is required.” The LTF commends the HUMA committee’s report for its prudent middle-ground approach that recognizes many of the critical issues and concerns, including supporting a pathway to permanency for farm and food workers.

The origins of the TFWP are tied to recognition of the unique work force needs of Canadian farmers who battle the weather and deal with short Canadian growing seasons. The program that brings in international workers allows us to eat fresh Canadian fruit, vegetables and honey. Strict program rules include regulated wages and housing, which are diligently enforced by the federal government.

Research indicates the work required to grow our food is divided roughly half and half between seasonal and permanent jobs. Seasonal workers make up approximately 53 per cent of our agriculture work force, with permanent workers making up about 47 per cent. Permanent farm and food jobs include cattle feedlots and cow/calf operations, hog farms, sheep farms, mushroom farms and greenhouses, aquaculture operations, vegetable, meat and some seafood processing, and grain, oilseed and pulse handling.

Our valued international agriculture workers make up 12 per cent of the work force, which helps to support 88 per cent of Canadian agriculture jobs. Without this support, Canadian jobs would be in jeopardy. Next time we go to the grocery store, let’s acknowledge the good work of farmers and food processors and that agriculture work and skills deserve to be valued. It’s important; it’s our food after all.

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