Canadian beef packing plants have a shaky future if they cannot find more workers.
“We fear right now as we deal with the tighter supplies, there are a lot of competitive pressures in North America with over-capacity in the packing industry,” Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said at the annual Alberta Beef Producers meeting in Calgary Dec. 2.
“We want to make sure with only two major plants in Canada that we do everything we can to make sure those plants are in a strong position to be the survivors.”
Cargill Meat Solutions is advertising for an additional 320 people and JBS Canada is looking for more than 150, even after conducting job fairs across Canada to attract workers.
Changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in June had a major impact on these companies because they had regularly hired people from other countries.
“We appreciated that primary agriculture was exempted from changes, but the real problem for us is the plants,” said CCA president Dave Solverson.
“They think we should be able to source most of our labour in the country and we all know how difficult that is.”
The labour shortage means Canada struggles to take advantage of trade opportunities to fill new market specifications. For example, China accepts only boneless beef from Canada, but it takes more labour to remove the bones and in some cases there are too few people to do the work.
Laycraft said the labour shortage may be partly why more than 800,000 head of cattle have been exported to the United States for processing rather than staying in Canada.
Temporary workers have never been an ideal solution for packing plants and feedlots because they need employees to stay long term so that they can pick up the skills needed to operate equipment and technology. Well-trained employees are also necessary to implement high food safety and animal welfare standards.
“We’ve got to promote some of these jobs as career jobs,” Solverson said.
“They are not just miserable jobs that will be the same for the rest of your life in a packing plant.”
Many people who have moved up the corporate ladder started on the meat floor and were promoted when opportunities came along.
“We’ve got to quit talking about temporary foreign workers,” Solverson said. “We have got to somehow facilitate a move where they can fast track to citizenship.”
Laycraft said many workers have been able to attain citizenship and contribute to their adopted communities.
The CCA is collaborating with the National Cattle Feeders Association and the Canadian Meat Council to make recommendations to government.
“When you talk to your members of Parliament or others, continue to stress the fact this is a really important issue to the industry,” he said.
Competitive wages are another issue in the Alberta labour market. Other jobs pay better, which makes it difficult for a high throughput meat plant to entice people.