Alex Binkley on farm help

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This issue in ...

The Binkley Report

Government tinkering with foreign workers

is hurting both agriculture and food industries

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective 

While the federal government has policies to encourage the country’s farmers and food processors to boost production, at the same time it’s hobbling them with ill-informed changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program.

It’s a remarkably clumsy move that began last year and seems to be rolling along unchecked by reality. It’s angered a lot of people who might be Conservative supporters.

From meat and food processors to fruit and vegetable growers, complaints are surfacing about crops being left to rot because no pickers cold be founds to plants having to reduce shifts because they have don’t have enough workers. That means they are buying less Canadian produced ingredients. Jobs are being lost or scaled back.

So far the industry’s complaints have been ignored by the government, which is bulling ahead with its plans to kick out as of April 1 low-skilled temporary foreign workers who have been in Canada for four years. Many businesses are wondering how they will remain in production. In the past employers could have these workers’ permits renewed if there were no available Canadian workers.

While the Seasonal Workers Program isn’t supposed to be affected, industry representatives say that government officials are complicating efforts to bring in the workers under this program, which has been in place for decades.

The sector has tried again and again to hire Canadians for jobs and they get few if any takers even with competitive wages and good working conditions.

Murray Porteous, who is the chairman of the labour committee of the Canadian Horticulture Council, which represents fruit and vegetable growers, says the agri-food sector should be given an exemption from changes to the TFWP and Seasonal Workers Program.

The sector requires an experienced workforce and has lots of part-time jobs that Canadians won’t accept. He’s advertised for his Simcoe, Ont. fruit and vegetable operation and had no responses.

Ron Davidson, vice president of the Canadian Meat Council, says, “If there are Canadians who are willing to work as butchers or meat cutters, Canadian meat packers and processors have several hundreds of jobs that are vacant and available today. … One single company is seeking 200 butchers and another is seeking 100 butchers.

“Meat sector jobs are not part-time, temporary or minimum wage positions devoid of benefits,” he notes. “Butcher and meat cutter jobs are fulltime, mostly unionized, and receive a full range of benefits in addition to pay scales that are well above minimum wage.

“Notwithstanding the competitive terms of employment, there is a severe and growing shortage of meat industry workers in Canada. The shortage is chronic, it is critical, it is diminishing farm incomes, it is reducing Canadian jobs, exports and economic growth and it is threatening the sustainability of the Canadian livestock and meat sector.”

Ron Lemire, President of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, told the Senate agriculture committee that “To ensure we can harvest the necessary products for market, labour is essential. Access to labour is a growing concern within the horticultural sector. The reality is that a majority of Canadians are not interested in the difficult work that must be done on fruit and vegetable farms.

“The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program has worked well, he adds. “Unfortunately, the agricultural stream has been impacted by changes to the larger Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which has caused significant difficulties for some to our Canadian farms. In particular, Quebec farms last year saw millions of dollars of fruit and vegetables left to rot on trees and on farms, in large part due to the difficulty of securing visas for workers through the TFWP.”

Rory McAlpine, senior vice president of government relations with Maple Leaf Foods Inc., told the committee his members are unable to find enough Canadians willing to work in trade. “It’s not easy work. It’s very hard to find young or older Canadians who can stick it out.”

The new rules are “the classic definition of shooting yourself in the foot. We are in a difficult situation.” His company’s Brandon, Man. Prok plant has 150 job vacancies. As result, “We have stopped exporting certain products to Asian markets,” McAlpine said; “We can no longer grow our chilled pork business to Japan. We may not be able to meet our export goals in China. Taking advantage of new trade agreements is out of the question.”

Christopher Kyte, president of Food Processors of Canada, said fruit and vegetable growers need help in the fields and processing plants. One processor aimed to fill 100 seasonal jobs. “Fifty people showed up; 35 showed up the second week. The third week, nobody showed up. They just didn’t like they work. They were all local. They didn’t want to get their hands dirty. You can’t run a business like that.”

Alex Binkley