Canadian farmers and meat processors are urging Ottawa to quickly bring in more foreign workers to help ease a labour crisis that is hurting the country’s agriculture industry.
They want the federal government to raise caps and speed up applications for the temporary foreign worker program to allow them to increase production.
Agriculture is one of many sectors struggling to add staff as the Canadian economy tries to recover from the damage caused by the coronavirus.
Although farms and plants were not subject to the sorts of lockdowns faced by restaurants or retailers, the pandemic made travel to rural sites difficult and slowed or stopped international travel. As well, COVID-19 outbreaks in some facilities put migrant workers’ health in danger and hampered operations.
But, agricultural business leaders say, the flow of foreign workers to Canada is integral to keeping the sector functioning as it has struggled for years to retain domestic employees.
Groups, including the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA), Mushrooms Canada and the Canadian Meat Council, say application processing times have grown exponentially during the pandemic, which is making it more difficult for farms and plants to maximize their production.
“When we talk about unfilled jobs, what we’re talking about is lost opportunity,” said Mary Robinson, CFA president and partner of a family farm operation that produces soy, barley and hay in Prince Edward Island. The CFA estimated the agriculture industry lost about $2.9-billion in revenue in 2020 because of low productivity, or about 4.5 per cent of overall sales.
Canadian agriculture has increasingly relied on bringing in workers from overseas to make up for shortfalls in domestic hiring. According to a Statistics Canada analysis from 2020, 27.4 per cent of all workers on crop production in Canada were temporary foreign workers (TFWs).
Meat processors have fewer foreign workers because, by law, there is a cap of 10 per cent or 20 per cent of their work force that can be TFWs. The percentage depends on the amount of a plant’s historical use of the program.
Marie-France MacKinnon, vice-president of public affairs at the Canadian Meat Council, said her group is calling for the cap to be raised to 30 per cent, which is where it was before the Ottawa lowered it in 2014. That year, the Conservative government tightened the rules to the TFW program, responding to reports that it was being overused and abused by some Canadian businesses.
“Our labour shortage is critical right now,” Ms. MacKinnon said. “It’s over 4,000 empty butcher stations from across the country.”
The federal government said in a statement Thursday that adjustments to the program are made on a continuing basis, depending on changes in labour-market conditions.
Mark Chambers, vice-president of Canadian pork production at Alberta-based Sunterra Farms, says his production runs below capacity because of a shortage of workers. He said his pork-processing plant has 120 stations, 20 of which are empty because there is no one to work them.
Mr. Chambers said he has had difficulty attracting new domestic workers to the company’s farms and plants, which he attributes to the low population of the rural communities, the reluctance of urban Canadians to work in the country and the nature of the work.
“You can’t completely fill every position with Canadians,” he said.
As part of the application to bring in a temporary foreign worker, employers first have to fill out a Labour Market Impact Assessment to show that no Canadians want the job. The federal government unveiled a new online form last year to speed up applications. But the website went down in August and has remained offline in the months since then, forcing employers to once again file by e-mail or fax.
Mr. Chambers said using the online portal, the turnaround time on an application was two to seven days – but now that he’s back to old methods, it’s lengthened to two to four weeks.
A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said some “technical issues” emerged on the website after an update, and department officials are still working on a fix. The government was not able to provide a timeline for when it would be online again.
The government also said processing times have increased because of an increase in the number of applications.
Representatives of the meat industry say their goal is to bring workers into Canada under the TFW program and then sponsor them for permanent residency, because their ultimate aim is to create a long-term work force in the sector. Ottawa made that easier with the launch of the Agri-Food Immigration Pilot in 2020, which allows agricultural employers to sponsor non-seasonal, full-time employees for permanent residency under some conditions.
Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance of Canada, said if Canada’s economy requires an influx of new immigrants, those people should be brought in through permanent-residency programs and not work permits that are tied to individual employers.
He said migrant workers who have to rely on their employers’ good graces to stay in the country are open to exploitation and abuse, such as having to endure unsafe working conditions. He said he has worked with TFWs who feared lodging labour complaints because they could lose their work permits if they did.
“Our members say this isn’t a pathway [to permanent residency], it’s a minefield where very few of us will survive to get to the other end,” Mr. Hussan said. “And most of us will be injured or hurt or forced to leave the country.”
Mr. Hussan said one solution is for TFWs and their sponsorship status to be protected under collective bargaining agreements, which helps shield those workers from employer reprisals.
One such agreement covers about 2,000 workers at the Maple Leafs Foods’ pork-processing plant in Brandon. That agreement requires all TFWs to be sponsored for permanent residence, which they can qualify for under the provincial nominee system after working two years.
With a report from Irene Galea
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