The other side of the temporary foreign worker story

Sunterra Meats has helped dozens of ‘temporary’ employees become 
permanent residents — and they’re revitalizing the town of Trochu

Ottawa’s decision to grandfather the number of temporary foreign workers is being welcomed by food-processing companies.

“It’s good news to the extent that we won’t have to send anybody back,” said Ray Price, president of Sunterra Meats, which runs farms, markets, and a small meat-processing plant in Alberta.

Federal Employment Minister Mary Ann Mihychuk announced earlier this summer that the cap will remain at 20 per cent of their staff for employers who hired temporary foreign workers prior to June 2014. Temporary foreign workers can account for no more than 10 per cent for companies who first used the program after that date.

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Under the 10 per cent cap, Sunterra’s meat plant in Trochu would have been forced to send back about three to five of their current temporary foreign workers.

The plant, which employs 130 people, hasn’t been able to bring in more foreign workers for more than a year, since its staffing is so close to the 20 per cent threshold. The majority of the workers is from the Philippines, but Sunterra has also employed foreign workers from Mexico, Central America, eastern Europe, and Africa.

If Sunterra had to rely on Canadian workers, it would have a difficult time finding enough workers.

“It’s hard to find staff for the meat plant, but we are getting more applicants than we have had for years because of the downturn in Alberta,” said Price.

However, there’s more turnover in staffing when Sunterra hires Canadian-born workers. Many live in urban centres, don’t want to move to rural areas, and don’t like the work — a problem faced by meat-processing plants across the country.

So Sunterra has focused on helping its foreign workers become permanent residents — with about 75 per cent of its current staff having achieved that status.

“The majority of the meat and farming industry wants workers to stay and get them into permanent residency,” said Price. “We don’t think we’re going to use them and send them home. By the time we’ve spent time training them, they feel valued — as they should — and their expertise goes up significantly and they’re happy to be here. It’s a good-paying job in a community that wants them there.”

Price is hoping to extend the employment of some of his current temporary foreign workers, and move them through English programs so they can become permanent residents.

Sunterra also uses the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program (AINP) to move temporary foreign workers into permanent residency. That program stopped accepting new applications last fall because of a backlog, but reopened this spring.

“There were a few months there where we didn’t have a path for our people — we couldn’t apply for the AINP and we had the 20 per cent going to the 10 per cent,” said Price. “We were concerned that the people we had, we weren’t going to be able to keep. With the AINP program opening back up, we’re in the position that we can hang on to them until they can become permanent residents.”

While the temporary foreign worker program has come under fire because of abuses by some employers, the benefits are plain to see in Trochu, a community of about 1,000 people, said Price.

“The school has just been renovated because enrolment is going up — it is one of the few rural communities that I know of where the school enrolment is going up,” he said. “The town is really excited because there are more kids in school and new facilities in town. If you look at the population of Trochu, they’d say the program is good, because there are people in the school, the population is growing and more taxes are being paid.

“What might apply in Toronto or Montreal or even Calgary is not the same in rural Alberta. Or rural Saskatchewan or rural Ontario, for that matter.”

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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