Abuse of temporary foreign worker program could spell trouble for farmers

Alberta’s labour shortage has made hiring temporary foreign workers more attractive for farmers — but visas are harder to get

Migrant workers in a field.
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Producers may have a harder time getting foreign worker visas following recent allegations that McDonald’s is abusing Canada’s temporary foreign worker program.

“It’s getting more difficult (to hire foreign labour),” said Al Dooley, agriculture labour recruiter with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.

“We’ve seen, from the program’s point of view, some bad news stories, and those sorts of things give the program a bit of a black eye. It makes it harder for everybody else.”

And the process is a lengthy one to begin with.

Right now, producers must advertise for Canadian workers for at least 14 days. After that, producers can apply for a labour market opinion, which confirms that producers have tried — and failed — to hire a Canadian.

It can take two to three months to obtain a labour market opinion, and so producers should continue to search for local candidates, said Dooley.

“They are making it a little more difficult… so you probably should keep your advertising until you get your labour market opinion approved.”

But even running an ad for months often proves futile, said Martine Varekamp-Bos, an immigration consultant who operates Immigration Care in Lacombe.

“Many farmers get very few Canadian responses to their ads” because of Alberta’s tight labour market, she said.

Dooley agrees.

“As an employer, you’re a bit cursed because employees have quite a bit of choice — employers can’t compete with the oilpatch,” he said.

“In much of agriculture, you’re a price-taker on the production side. If you can’t recoup (high worker wages) from the marketplace, that’s not a viable option.”

Because of the labour shortage, hiring foreign help has “increased substantially over the past decade” in the province. About 4,000 Alberta producers turned to the temporary foreign worker program in the past year, said Dooley.

“It does indicate that these companies are becoming more and more reliant on foreign workers.”

Hiring students

Wetaskiwin grain and cattle farmer Curtis Pohl typically hires a foreign student each summer through a visa program that allows students or young professionals to work up to a year in Canada.

But demand for such visas has skyrocketed in the eight years he’s been using the program.

“We ran into trouble last year where we just barely got the visas done before they ran out,” said Pohl.

“The visas are becoming in higher demand. There’s more and more people wanting workers.”

That’s made it doubly important to ensure the paperwork is in order.

One student had her visa rejected twice because of errors in her application — and each application takes between six to eight weeks to process, he said.

“The visas were gone before she was able to (reapply),” said Pohl.

Because they don’t require a labour market opinion, these permits are in high demand.

“There’s only around 4,500 work and travel permits (issued annually),” said Pohl. “Once those are gone, they’re gone, and then you have to look at other routes.”

Last year, the federal government moved the application process online, delaying the program start date until February.

“When it opened it up, those visas were gone in 24 hours,” he said. “That’s how many people were applying.”

Pohl sees more and more farmers in his area looking for summer students from abroad to help out during the busy season, and he suspects demand will continue to grow.

“It’s a little bit stressful through the winter when you’re trying to get this all lined up and not knowing for sure if you’re going to… have that help.”

About the author


Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.



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