Farmers want changes to temporary foreign workers program

Cal Penner noticed about a decade ago that it was getting harder to retain employees at his hog farm northwest of Winnipeg.

The young men who worked briefly for Penner left for a variety of reasons. Some didn’t like the dust inside the barns. Others didn’t care for the smell.

One employee, though, had a memorable reason for quitting.

“I had one guy say he didn’t like to sweat when he worked,” Penner said.

“Well, good luck with that.”

Penner laughed while sharing that anecdote, but he said a lack of labour has become a serious issue for independent hog producers in Manitoba.

“It would be nice if we could fill the jobs with Canadians, but this next generation that has come along, it’s not for them,” said Penner, who farms near Argyle, Man.

With the exception of Hutterite colonies, most Manitoba hog farmers now depend on foreign workers.

“I don’t have the stats, but I would say over 50 percent of the workers in hog barns in the province would be foreign workers of some type,” said Penner, who has two employees from the Philippines.

“Even the Maple Leaf barns, Hylife … I would think they’d be a very high (percentage) of foreign workers.”

The federal government imposed a moratorium last week on temporary foreign workers in the restaurant and food services industry, following highly publicized incidents in which McDonald’s allegedly abused the temporary foreign worker program.

CBC reported that three McDonald’s in Victoria hired temporary foreign workers from the Philippines and gave those workers more shifts than local employees.

In a separate incident, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour said the Travelodge hotel in Weyburn, Sask., also abused the program. The federation said the hotel fired two waitresses with a combined 42 years of service and replaced them with temporary foreign workers.

The federal government will not process any applications to the temporary foreign worker program from restaurant and food services industry until it completes a review of the program.

Unions and the C.D. Howe Institute may claim the temporary foreign worker program increases Canadian unemployment, but hog producers and beekeepers in Western Canada say they couldn’t operate without foreign labour.

Paul Greidanus, a beekeeper from Morinville, Alta., relies heavily on foreign workers from the Philippines, Nicaragua and Mexico. He said beekeepers could be put in jeopardy if the government introduces new restrictions to slow the flow of foreign workers.

“You hear one or two bad stories, but that’s one out of many, many foreign workers who are in (Alberta),” said Greidanus, who has hired foreign workers from Mexico and Nicaragua for 30 years.

“I’m getting 12 guys in this year (from Nicaragua)…. If we couldn’t get foreign workers we would have to downsize, a lot.”

Temporary foreign workers represent 50 to 60 percent of all apiary employees in Western Canada. The percentage is even higher in Alberta: 65 to 75 percent.

Beekeepers bring in foreign workers for six months because they can’t find locals to do the seasonal work.

“The farming families in the countryside are gone,” said Bruce Podolsky, a honey producer from Ethelbert, Man.

“It’s all big farmers so there are very few young people around.”

Beekeepers and hog producers must post help wanted ads in local and regional publication, to prove there are no applicants before recruiting foreign workers.

“We have to advertise the job in three sources, for about half a year, before we can start applying (for temporary foreign workers),” Greidanus said, chair of the Beekeepers Commission of Alberta’s labour committee.

“We have to show we’re doing our due diligence, trying to get Canadian workers to do the job. Even with all the advertising we do, we rarely get a call about the job.”

Greidanus would hire Canadians if he could. He would even raise wages because recruiting foreign workers is expensive.

“One of the biggest misconceptions that we get… is we (hire foreigners) because it’s cheaper. It really isn’t. We have to house these guys, we have to fly them in … and we’re still paying them $14.30 per hour,” he said.

“If you add up all those things, I’d pay $20 an hour for a Canadian guy.”

Beekeepers typically hire foreign workers for six months, but hog producers use a different program. Penner recruited his employees from the Philippines, who came to Canada to stay.

“It’s an agreement that they work for us for a minimum of two years. Then they’re free to pursue whatever their heart desires (in Canada).”

Penner said he had to wait nine months before the federal government approved the application for the first employee. The second application took 11 months.

“We were short-staffed through both those periods of time,” Penner said, adding a lack of employees has become a chronic problem for Manitoba’s independent hog farmers.

“Discussions I’ve had with producers, they’re just very, very tired of … being short staffed for (extended) periods of time…. Each farm is only as strong as the people they have. If we have to go for months, or almost a year, short staffed, there’s a financial cost to that.”

Greidanus said the process is also torturous for beekeepers: applications must be submitted four or five months before foreign workers arrive.

Penner is among the producers lobbying government to simplify the application process so that hog farmers don’t have to wait a year to hire a foreign worker.

He would like to see a distinct program for agriculture that is separate from the temporary foreign workers employed at fast food restaurants and other occupations.

Beekeepers are also lobbying the government for a similar change so that long-time users of temporary foreign labour are placed in a different category.

“People like ourselves, who have been in the program, without complaint or problem, for so many years, we’re looking for a little bit of a fast track for the process.”

Penner said politicians are concerned about the human resource challenges in the hog industry, but he doesn’t expect an immediate solution.

“They (politicians) make promises. They’d like to expedite the paperwork,” he said.

“(But) everything to do with government, it’s like pushing a rope up a hill.”

3 Responses

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  1. Santiago on

    Yeah right I have never seen anyone on the Alberta Beekeepers site offering anything near $20/hour (more like 11-14). Maybe if this guy put his money where his mouth is he could get the employees he needs without having to bring in people from the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Take a look for yourself, starting wages of $11.52/hour and they wonder why no one bothers with a career in beekeeping anymore.

  2. As an employer in the ag industry, I for one am fed up with comments like the one above. The TFW is the only reason progressive farmers and small business can survive. Keyword from Mr. Santiago’s response “starting wage”. Would you offer a new inexperienced employee 20/hr Mr. Santiago? Would you still think it was a good idea when you find your forklift through the side of your new shop? How about when he drives a nail from a nail gun into his kneecap because he was horsing around? We bring these people in because they are dependable, hard working, and dedicated people. It may take a year to get them trained but they are the difference between getting our product to the processors on time or complete failure. Face it, in western canada if you are a resident, it is easy for someone to make 30$/hr in the energy industry. Why stick around on farms for 20+-?

    • Santiago on

      You’re sort of proving my point here, pay substandard wages and you end up with substandard employees whom no one else wants. You must have been really scraping the bottom of the barrel to end up with idiots like the ones you described. The only reason why the foreign workers are so reliable, why they have so much commitment to the job, is because they know their hard work is going to earn them and their families a decent living back home.
      Why would a local stick around on a farm when they could make more elsewhere? Well there are a lot more people than you’d think who would prefer something like beekeeping to working in oil and gas, even if it won’t make them rich. Not everyone is motivated by money, and not every job can pay $30/hour. Nevertheless, if you want people to see this as a viable career, it needs to pay them at least enough to make ends meet, even while they are still learning. I don’t see how this idea is so controversial.

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