Foreign workers fill the gaps – Special Report (story 3)

When the prairie swine industry started feeling the effects of a tightening labour market two years ago, it went west in its search for qualified hog barn employees.

How far west?

About 11,000 kilometres, to the Philippines, where wages are low and experienced hog barn workers are plentiful.

For Big Sky Farms, one of the first swine industry employers to take its recruitment efforts abroad, the Filipino experiment has been positive, said Karen Schenn, the company’s recruitment manager.

“When we started our retention program five years ago, our big focus was retaining the workers that we had and bringing in local people,” Schenn said.

“But (the labour market) has changed a lot since then and by the end of 2006 or early 2007, we realized we were going to have to take a good look at our labour situation.”

Schenn said the Philippines has proven to be a rich recruiting ground.

In the last six months, Big Sky has hired 24 Filipino workers and has pledged to hire another 45 who had been recruited by Stomp Pork before it went out of business.

The Filipino workers began arriving in Canada in February. Within six months, most will become permanent residents and begin moving their families to Canada, said Schenn.

In the Philippines, competition for jobs in the Canadian swine industry is fierce.

On a recent recruitment mission, dozens of applicants lined the street, all vying for a chance to start a new life in Canada, she said.

The Philippines has a well-established hog industry with modern corporate barns and an abundance of qualified workers, most of whom are fluent in English.

As a result, relocation and integration in Canada has been relatively trouble-free.

Educational opportunities are limited in the Philippines and families must pay out-of-pocket for medical care, Schenn added.

These factors, combined with high unemployment rates, comparatively low wages and a lack of labour standards, make Canadian hog barns an appealing work destination.

“If you speak with any of our Filipino workers … many of them refer to coming to Canada like winning a lottery,” Schenn said.

Ruth Howes, immigration co-ordinator in Tisdale, Sask., said the hog industry is just one sector of the prairie economy looking overseas for new workers.

In Tisdale, a community of about 3,000, dozens of employers have hired foreign workers and more are inquiring about the process.

During the past two years, Howes estimated that 90 immigrants have settled in the area.

Among the town’s newest residents are German-born mechanics, British farm workers, apiarists from Central America and Romania, hog barn workers from the Philippines and a growing community of Ukrainian-born welders who work at Northern Steel, a local manufacturer of steel tanks.

About 20 kilometres away in Star City, Sask., hog barn employee Ric Magdato is becoming accustomed to his new life in Canada.

Originally from Batangas, a Filipino city of a few hundred thousand people, Magdato applied for a position in Canada and arrived in Star City, population 500, about five months ago.

With 10 years of experience in commercial hog production, Magdato used to work 10 to 12 hours a day in the Philippines and earned the equivalent of about $10 per day.

In Canada, he earns that much in an hour.

“I will have more money here because Philippines is not that good regarding salaries,” Magdato said.

“I also wanted to learn how pigs are raised here … because I believe Canada is more advanced regarding hog production.”

Howes said foreign workers who have a positive work experience in Canada are often the tip of the iceberg.

Magdato, for example, is already urging friends and family back home to consider moving to Canada.

“Now that they (foreign workers) are coming here and they’re doing well, they want the rest of their families to come and take advantage of the employment opportunities.”

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