Despite job losses in other sectors, Canada’s pork industry is still struggling to build a sustainable workforce.
“For us in Western Canada, it really comes down to availability of labour,” said Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director at Alberta Pork.
“We need to have workers available for us, and often, they’re not Canadian, only because we don’t have enough workers to come work on farms with us or to work in processing. It’s right through the value chain.”
There are currently 800 to 1,000 job vacancies at meat-packing plants across Canada — about 10 per cent of the workforce.
That won’t be remedied by massive layoffs in the oil and gas sector, said Fitzgerald.
“If you don’t know the industry or have a history with it — as most Canadians don’t — it doesn’t pay those big six figures like the oil and gas industry does,” said Fitzgerald.
“Those people don’t come to work at the farm. They don’t come to work in food processing. That’s the reality of it. We need to be real about our situation. Just because one industry lays off workers doesn’t mean those workers will come work in another one.”
And the industry isn’t a fit for a lot of people, he added.
“Just because you’re a body and don’t have a job, it doesn’t mean you’re the right body to work in an industry that has to have a lot of compassion for animals. We need people who know how to work with animals and have an innate ability to do that.”
That’s why the industry is reliant on the federal temporary foreign worker program. And while it helps, said Fitzgerald, it’s also “cumbersome to get through.”
“It’s a long process. It’s an arduous process. And we’re moving down the road of making it harder than better.”
Seasonal workers aren’t an issue for the industry, but finding long-term employees is.
“We’re looking for the types of workers that can come year round and the types of programs that can work long term for our livestock industry.”
Ideally, temporary foreign workers would be nominated to become Canadian citizens, but again, red tape gets in the way.
“Often, we have too many people lined up to become Canadians, and suddenly these individuals — who are very good people and who want to become citizens — are turned away and have to go back home,” he said.
“Then they’re out of the system for four years, and we can’t wait four years for them to come back to Canada.”
Fitzgerald wants the next federal government to fix the program so it “serves both the worker and the employer, while being good for Canada.”
“This really comes down to industry and government working together on programs that are good for everyone and good for the country.”