Déjà vu all over again at Alberta’s largest meat-packing plants

Food processors hit hard by recent changes to the temporary foreign worker program

How will recent changes to the temporary foreign worker program impact agriculture’s ability to compete for labour?

Paul Wannet, human resources manager for Cargill Meats in High River, knows — and he’s been through it before.

The situation was dire for Alberta’s largest meat-packing plant in 2007 when the temporary foreign worker program renewal came into effect.

“Prior to the 2007 temporary foreign worker program renewal, the volume of our facility capacity was starting to crash, resulting in a reduction in capital investments and impacting our business and competitiveness,” said Wannet.

At that time, the plant was looking to hire 230 more people to deal with an extremely high turnover of employees.

“Anyone trying to run an operation or facility with 40 per cent turnover knows it’s pretty tough to do.”

Cargill started recruiting heavily across the country, but still had difficulty hiring Canadian workers. The renewal of the temporary foreign worker program in 2007 provided Cargill with “an effective tool to meet the demand for higher-qualified workers.”

“For us as a plant, we were starting to get a sustainable workforce,” said Wannet. “We had the ability at that time to hire more qualified workers.”

Since then, turnover has fallen to 20 per cent, and only seven per cent of foreign workers who have received permanent residency in the years have left the plant, which employs 2,000 people.

“As of today, we have 651 people who have received their permanent residency,” he said.

“To us in High River, that was a competitive advantage. We didn’t have to go and train people, and we had a sustainable workforce. The program does work.”

But following program changes in June, which have made it both more expensive and more difficult to hire temporary foreign workers, Cargill is back where it started seven years ago.

“Prior to the June 2014 announcement, we’re still 339 people short to meet market demands and to take advantage of new markets,” said Wannet, adding that the company is still having difficulties recruiting domestic workers.

“Today, when I look at it, I’m back to 2007 where I was. But then I was 230 people short and now I’m 330 people short.”

About the author

Reporter

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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