A chronic shortage of workers isn’t just a problem for meat packers, but all of agriculture, say experts.
Mark Chambers sees the impact every day at Sunterra Farms, but also knows his experience is being mirrored across the country.
“If we can’t get enough labour to produce the value-added products or to expand and grow, we’re going to be at a competitive disadvantage to our neighbours south of us,” said Chambers, senior production manager at Sunterra Farms and also a member of a national task force trying to find solutions for the worsening labour situation.
“That’s not a good thing when you’re trying to grow your economy.”
There are currently 800 to 1,000 vacant positions in Canadian meat-packing plants alone, including 20 at Sunterra’s facility near Acme, which processes mainly hogs (but also some bison, cattle and lamb). The plant employs about 100 people, said Chambers.
“It’s not a big plant — it’s a small business — and we export about 70 per cent of that product to international markets,” he said. “It’s a challenge to try and take advantage of those opportunities when you don’t have enough people. We just cannot kill enough pigs if we don’t have the people there.”
The labour shortages at processing plants have a “trickle-down effect” all across agriculture, said Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council.
“There are many plants that are sitting with hundreds of positions that are unfilled,” she said. “When that happens, the plant isn’t operating as efficiently as it could be, and those big operations start thinking about whether they want to stay in Canada or move operations to the States.
“The whole of the value chain, whether it be in the pork industry or the beef industry, is really quite concerned about this issue.”
And the problem isn’t unique to food processing, said MacDonald-Dewhirst. It’s also impacting primary producers who can’t find farm labourers.
“We know vacancy rates have typically been nine to 10 per cent for this industry, and we know that that has increased in the last little while,” she said.
“With so many positions being open and people really scrambling to fill them, it impacts not just production capacity right now but also business growth and expansion opportunities that producers aren’t able to take advantage of.
“Everybody is implicated if one part of the value chain is in dire straits.”
But an already bad situation is getting worse because of changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, said Chambers, who also serves on the Agriculture and Agri-Food Labour Task Force, a national body set up in 2012 to find solutions for the labour shortage.
Like many companies in the food industry, Sunterra is constantly searching for Canadian workers, but gets “very few” applications, said Chambers.
“Our first goal is to try and get Canadians hired because it’s the easier way to do it and it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “But people move on to bigger and better things, and we’re just having a real hard time trying to replace them with Canadians.
“There’s just fewer people to choose from. We’re not getting the applications.”
His company has relied heavily on temporary foreign workers in the last few years, but it also assists them in becoming permanent residents.
“Basically, we’ve brought people in on a work permit, and then we’ve put them through the provincial nomination program,” said Chambers. “They come in as a temporary worker, and then eventually they become a permanent resident.”
While some workers leave Sunterra once they become permanent residents, many stay with the company.
“We can’t run the business on temporary work,” said Chambers. “We need reliable employees that are going to be with us every day.”
But backlogs in the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program, where processing applications takes from one to two years, have put the brakes on Sunterra’s plans for a stable workforce.
“In the meat plant, it is problematic because there’s a lot of people who want to be nominated, and there’s a huge backlog,” said Chambers. “It would be a lot better if that program ran more efficiently.”
Until that backlog is reduced, the company can’t even seek a labour market impact assessment that would allow it to hire more temporary foreign workers.
Right now, the Labour Task Force is “working diligently” with the federal government to address some of the problems that have arisen because of the changes to the temporary foreign worker program, said MacDonald-Dewhirst.
“We’re trying to work with the government to explain that the agriculture and agri-food industry is different. It’s an industry that depends on temporary foreign workers,” she said.
“When there is a need for foreign labour to be used, there’s a real need and it’s pressing. These businesses are using the program in the way that it should be, and we want to tweak it so that it’s working as best as it can.”
The group has developed a series of recommendations for how the temporary foreign worker program can be administered “in a way where there’s consistency and fairness across the industry,” she said. “Farmers in Canada are absolutely dedicated to ensuring that their businesses are operating as efficiently as possible and using Canadian workers to do so. But when there is a need for immediate relief of a labour issue, we need to be able to quickly access temporary foreign workers and move them toward permanent residency.”
At Sunterra, Chambers will continue to seek Canadian workers, but it’s getting more and more difficult, he said.
“It’s tough to get people to move out to the country,” said Chambers. “Rural communities are getting smaller and smaller, so it’s getting tougher to attract people there.
“Ten or 15 years ago, we had a lot of good farm people working on the farms, but as the oil and gas sector took off in Alberta, a lot of those good farm boys took off to the oil industry because they can earn six-digit money.”
The drop in oil prices, and resulting layoffs, have resulted in “a few more resumés coming through the door,” but that’s a short-term solution, he said.
“As the oilpatch calls, they’re gone. It’s really difficult for us to run a business like that.”
And the fact remains that some jobs in the agri-food sector are “not the most desirable,” he said.
“I mean, I work in agriculture. I raise animals. But I wouldn’t want to work in a meat plant,” said Chambers. “Some of (those jobs) are not the most desirable thing to do.”
The shortage of workers has also limited Sunterra’s ability to grow its grain operation and hog production.
And it also means that opportunities to grow the agri-food industry in Canada are being curtailed, said Chambers.
For example, his company has seen strong demand from export customers for organ meats.
“Food is being thrown away because there’s not enough people to process it and send it off to international markets,” said Chambers.