Foreign worker recruitment programs need streamlining

Years ago, farm labour was not an issue. It was a foregone conclusion that farm families, generally much larger than those of today, would work the land and the barns themselves with help from, perhaps, a hired hand.

Today, farm labour — at least in a recent survey — is the third-ranking major concern among producers, behind only weather and high input prices.

Thirty-two percent of farmers in a recent PRA Research Associates survey were worried about farm labour. The bigger the farm, the greater the concern expressed.

Let’s face it, it’s not easy work. As the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association said in a recent note on the CCA Action News website, there is “widespread recognition that traditional Canadian sources for agriculture labour are proving inadequate.

“Simply put, few Canadian-born workers aspire to work in livestock production and meat processing jobs, particularly due to the tendency of such positions being in remote or rural locations,” said the note.

This is one of many reasons behind the need for an additional 50,900 non-seasonal and 38,800 seasonal workers, according to a Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council (CAHRC) Labour Market Information on Recruitment and Retention Report (2009).

As Corey Bacon, president of the Saskatchewan Beekeepers Association, recently noted in an interview, the nature of seasonal work is a problem and the ever-present “stinging insects may be another deterrent.”

Therefore, Bacon has relied on the agricultural stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, which was not touched when Ottawa made changes to the wider program a few weeks ago.

However, even that has been a tougher row to hoe since the Saskatoon office was closed more than two years ago. Since then, the processing time for foreign worker applicants has risen from three weeks to several months, he said.

“It really affected my business,” said Bacon. “We’re not like hotels or Tim Hortons. We’ve got to hit those (seasonal) windows.”

Some of the issues, as described by Bacon and the CCA, regarding a shortage of workers cannot be resolved by policy or process, but they can help. For example, expediting forms and eliminating bottlenecks in the system would be of enormous help to producers like Bacon.

On the livestock side, it is also strange that feedlot operations are excluded from both the ag stream of TFW and the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program. Feedlot work is certainly primary agriculture, and while some may not like to see foreign workers expedited for huge feedlots connected to slaughter plants, smaller feedlot operators would benefit enormously from the ability to plug into this program.

Otherwise, feedlots and other larger livestock operations are stuck with the general, more restrictive TFW program.

The CCA has rightly asked the federal government to implement the recommendations of the CAHRC report, which would “improve the administration of the existing program and address constraints that hinder legitimate use of the program in the agriculture and agri-food sector.”

The recommendations can be found on the CAHRC website. Recommendation No. 2, for example, suggests taking action to increase the supply of workers to agriculture in several ways — notably, modifying Canada’s immigration program to enable people who want to work in agriculture to stay longer-term; and improve employment insurance and social assistance programs, so that people are not penalized for taking short-term employment in agriculture.

Perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at the programs governing recruitment of foreign workers, not to mention Canadian-born workers. Patchwork systems can be frustrating and confusing, and a more streamlined, focused approach to dealing with a dearth of farm labour will yield big benefits in the long run.

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