A federal government review of the temporary foreign worker program has those in the agriculture industry worried about potential changes that could alter access to a needed source of farm labour.
Federal employment minister Jason Kenney imposed a moratorium in April on the program, in the food services sector only, after alleged abuse by some fast food companies.
The move did not affect the program in the agricultural sector but Kenney’s promised review could have implications for future access.
An estimated 40 percent of staff in pork processing plants are temporary foreign workers, and the program is also heavily used to recruit seasonal workers in the vegetable and fruit industries.
Alberta Pork chair Frank Novak is one hog producer nervous about the program review.
“The major (hog) processor in Alberta, 40 percent of their workforce is temporary foreign workers,” he said.
“The numbers are very similar for the big plant in Brandon and the other processing plants as well.
“All the farms that rely on hired labour to do their work, a big percentage of those will have foreign workers, a significant percentage. If you took all of those away tomorrow, you would have a disaster in both production and processing. It would be an unmitigated disaster.”
Alberta hired more than 84,400 temporary foreign workers in 2012 in all sectors. The Alberta Chamber of Commerce in May asked its members to identify concerns with the program and the moratorium.
That prompted the Lethbridge Chamber to issue a news release stating the TFW program fills a need and employers who abuse it should be prosecuted.
However, it asked that the program be reinstated in the food services sector because it is causing hardship for many businesses.
Bruce Galts, president of the Lethbridge Chamber, said in a June 5 interview that the TFW program is important.
“The challenge is getting Canadian workers and if you can’t get those Canadian workers because they’re not interested or aren’t available, you need another solution,” Galts said.
“The temporary foreign worker solution has been part of the answer for agriculture industries. We need to keep that door open until there are other options, and it’s one of the solutions.”
Susan McDaniel, University of Lethbridge sociology professor and Prentice research chair in global population and economy, said agricultural labour was one of the original goals of the TFW program. The other goal was to access highly skilled people that had expertise unavailable in Canada.
“The agriculture sector has been a long user of temporary foreign workers. It’s a long tradition,” McDaniel said.
“I think what’s happened is this amoeba phenomenon has pulled this temporary foreign worker thing into fast food restaurants and hotel cleaners and that type of thing. That was never there before.”
She said serving the latter job market was never the intention of the program, so a federal study may be useful to identify how and why it changed.
McDaniel and colleagues at the universities of Calgary and Alberta recently completed a review of Canadian labour data published from 2000-2013.
Their synthesis showed there is no national labour shortage, although there are regional and sector shortages. Mismatches between higher labour needs and low worker availability are common in vibrant economies, she said.
There is little research available on local labour markets or whether there are ways to employ more Canadians in various labour-short regions. However, McDaniel said temporary foreign workers are generally not the answer to regional labour needs.
She said there is some evidence that the TFW program blocks employment opportunities for youth and Canadian immigrants but more study would be needed to determine its real effect.