Meat industry labour shortage sign of affluence

Journalists love a great quote.

My favourite of 2014, so far, came from Calvin Penner, a pork producer from Argyle, Man.

During the height of the temporary foreign worker controversy this spring, Penner said he uses foreign-born workers because has tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit and retain young Canadians.

Many of those employees lasted less than a week. Some quit because they didn’t like the smell in the pig barns. Others didn’t care for the dust. One short-term employee had a memorable reason for leaving.

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

I love that quote because it provided a humourous lead for an article but also spoke to a larger truth.

Most Canadians under the age of 30 aren’t willing to work at difficult, strenuous jobs, unless the position pays extremely well or offers a unique life experience.

As examples, young men will work through the winter on a drilling rig in Northern Alberta, in sometimes dangerous and brutally cold conditions, because the job pays $85,000 a year or more.

Young men and women will also plant 2,500 trees a day in remote locations because it offers a singular experience, living close to nature with other 20-somethings and making a difference in a small way.

The ‘I don’t like to sweat’ excuse doesn’t mean young people are lazy, it’s an indicator of Canada’s affluence. In 2011 the median family income was $76,000 a year and the average home price hit $413,000 this summer.

Culturally, compared to 30 years ago, fewer people get married and have children in their early twenties. Which means fewer people are forced to work at jobs they dislike in order to put food on the table.

We haven’t achieved the decadence of Qatar, where temporary foreign labourers fix every leaky sink because there are too few or no Qatari citizens performing that work.

It appears that there are fewer Canadians willing to slaughter animals or cut meat at wages the industry is willing to pay.

As evidence, there are pages and pages of job postings for meat cutters on the Service Canada website. A quick search shows there are:

–      55 positions for industrial meat cutters

–      198 for retail or wholesale meat cutters

–      587 for frozen meat cutters

The standard response to the job vacancies is that Canadians would work at slaughter plants if companies increased wages.

That may be true, but Canadian meat industry employees will never be paid $60,000 a year when workers at U.S. plants make $20,000 to $30,000 annually.

And slaughterhouses will never offer perks comparable to Silicon Valley’s high-tech sector, where rock climbing walls and on-site moksha yoga instructors are commonplace.

If third and fourth generation Canadians will no longer do unpleasant work, this new reality provokes distressing questions about class, status, entitlement and immigration, which aren’t easy to face.

Unfortunately for the meat industry, hog barns, feedlots and slaughter plants have become a proxy for these broader issues.

Is it time to accept that Canadians will not do certain jobs for a living? If so it should be spelled out by industry leaders and politicians so that the public is aware of this change to Canadian society. Public policy should address any societal shortcomings produced from these decisions.

Otherwise, we will soon have a different issue to worry about: the disappearance of slaughter plants and the decline of Canada’s $23 billion red meat industry.

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