The new federal jobs minister simply doesn’t understand the labour crisis faced by the country’s meat-packing industry, says the co-chair of an industry labour task force.
Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk says meat packers don’t need temporary foreign workers because there are tens of thousands of laid-off workers who could be recruited.
“In the present circumstance, where we are seeing such economic hard times across the Prairies, it would be a very unusual circumstance where we had to resort to temporary foreign workers to fill a position,” Mihychuk told the Canadian Press last month.
Not so, said Mark Chambers, production manager at Sunterra Farms.
“It’s an uninformed comment coming from someone who thinks the solution to labour shortages is to pay more and that will fix the problem,” said Chambers, who is also co-chair of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Labour Task Force.
“It’s not about how much you pay. It’s the type of job.”
Layoffs in Alberta haven’t lessened the labour shortage at the province’s packing plants and there are “still lots and lots of jobs that are available.”
“I think some plants may have got a few more resumés from folks who are desperate, but it’s going to take them being on unemployment for a long time before they decide they need to do this,” said Chambers.
“They will fall into hardships before they decide they’ll do this type of job.”
It’s not surprising, he added.
“I work on a farm — but I don’t want to work in a slaughterhouse,” said Chambers. “It’s not something I would choose to do, even if I got paid $5 an hour more.
“We produce meat, and that involves the slaughter of animals. It’s not for everybody. It’s hard to find people to do that.”
Another “big hurdle” is that most urban residents don’t want to move to rural locations, said Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council.
“Typically people aren’t interested in moving from where they live in order to take a job,” said MacDonald-Dewhirst. “As urban population rates grow, our rural population rates don’t. As we look at our Canadian workforce, so many of us are that much more removed from agriculture than we used to be 50 or 60 years ago.
“Because of that, ag careers are not top of mind. Certain segments of the agriculture industry are really, really struggling.”
Foreign workers needed
Mihychuk suggested packing plants focus on new Canadians, but that’s already being done, she said.
“They’re doing all sorts of great things in order to attract new Canadians and the Canadian workforce,” she said. “The priority of everybody in the agriculture industry is to hire Canadians first, and a lot of effort is expended on that.
“But when there aren’t available Canadians for those jobs, then we need other avenues to fill positions, like the temporary foreign worker program.”
But changes to that program in 2014 have “really impacted the industry,” said MacDonald-Dewhirst.
“Although agriculture was exempted from some of the changes, it didn’t extend far enough,” she said.
The meat-packing sector in particular is struggling as a result of a new cap on foreign workers, said Chambers.
“In our meat plant in Trochu, we’ve got 20 to 25 empty positions there today, and we can’t hire any more foreign workers because of the cap,” he said.
“They imposed a 30 per cent cap three years ago and a 20 per cent cap last year, and as of July 1, you can only have 10 per cent foreign workers in your meat plant.
“So if you can’t fill those positions with Canadians, those positions stay vacant.”
As a result, plants aren’t able to expand to take advantage of new international trade deals or niche markets, like offal in Asia.
“It’s frustrating to think we can’t fully staff it just because of some red tape and that we can’t take advantage of these great trade deals that the government’s gone out and worked so hard to get,” said Chambers.
“It’s crazy. We’re throwing food out just because we can’t get enough people to work in the plant.”
But despite pre-election assurances from the Liberal government that it would “fix” the program, the industry hasn’t made any headway yet.
“We are working with the department to help them to clarify what’s happening in agriculture and what some of the barriers are — why Canadians aren’t interested in ag jobs to the extent that we need them to be,” said MacDonald-Dewhirst.
“We’re trying to sort that out with them so that they can then understand the situation and perhaps make some changes that would be meaningful for the industry.”
Any long-term solution will need to address the “unique” nature of the agriculture industry, added Chambers.
“The meat industry will continue to go above and beyond on recruiting efforts right across Canada,” he said. “We’re not going to give up on that stuff, because it’s easier for us if we can get Canadians.
“But if we can’t, I don’t think we can allow businesses to suffer just because the government thinks if we pay more money, we’ll get people into these plants.
“I’m hoping we can work with the government to help them understand why we’re unique and create some pathways for plants and farmers to get a stable supply of foreign workers.”