Agriculture labour issues often misunderstood by others

It’s an issue that farmers, packers and processors have been warning about for more than a year: Canada’s agricultural sector is facing a serious labour shortage.

The shortage of skilled and available labour is well-known in the agricultural community.

However, controversial comments by Conservative MP John Williamson, a Conservative backbencher, highlight how the burgeoning crisis is not understood by those outside Canada’s farming community.

At a conservative policy conference March 7, Williamson was asked a question by Bryan Walton of the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association about the severe worker shortage in meat processing and packing plants, which has been exacerbated by changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program.

“Policy-wise, I don’t think you got it right with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program,” Walton told Williamson.

“Those plants struggle mightily. They travel the lengths and breadths of this country, on the reserves (looking for workers) and they are struggling. They need that program.”

While Williamson, a New Brunswick MP, acknowledged that the issue of temporary foreign workers resonated differently in various parts of the country, he was adamant the program had been abused.

“My part of the country, I deal with temporary foreign workers and the interaction with employment insurance, and it makes no sense from my point of view,” he said.

“I’m going to put this in terms of colours, but it’s not meant to be about race. It makes no sense to pay ‘whities’ to stay home while we bring in brown people to work in these jobs. When I have 10 to 12 percent unemployment rates in my province, I’m not going to abide by a policy that encourages people to stay home and collect an EI cheque and bring people from overseas to fill these jobs. I know it’s different in Western Canada, but I’ve also seen cases in Western Canada where companies were putting in Mandarin as a requirement for a job requirement, thereby bringing in Chinese workers. That is unacceptable.”

Putting the political correctness debate aside (Williamson has since apologized “unreservedly” on Twitter for using “offensive and inappropriate language”), his underlying message is clear: temporary foreign workers are taking Canadian jobs.

This is not the first time a politically charged debate has erupted over the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

The controversial program has been a political lightening rod for years and has repeatedly put federal governments on the defensive.

The most recent back-peddling happened last year after a series of companies, primarily in the service industry, were accused of abusing the program.

Canadians were furious to learn that companies were bringing in temporary foreign workers in lieu of hiring locally, with one company — the Royal Bank of Canada — accused of firing Canadians only to replace them with foreign workers.

The federal government cracked down on the program with major, sweeping reforms in June that capped the number of foreign workers allowed per work site and bumped the processing fees per worker to $1,000 from $275.

The government said both the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program and the agriculture worker stream would go untouched, but the changes have severely impeded agriculture value chains across the country.

The problem is that Canadians, regardless of regional unemployment, just don’t want the available jobs. The work can been physically demanding and is generally located in rural areas.

It is this unwavering attitude to-ward agriculture jobs that is largely misunderstood by individuals such as Williamson.

There is no question the Maritime provinces have high levels of unemployment.

The problem, according to farmers and processors, is that those unemployed individuals are generally more interested in moving west, drawn by the lure of the oil and construction industries, than they are to work in agriculture closer to home.

Canada’s agricultural industry is a major economic engine, contributing $106 billion to the national economy in 2013. It employs more that two million Canadians with another 73,862 jobs expected to be created by 2022.

One-third of those new jobs are expected to go unfilled if a national labour strategy for agriculture isn’t developed, be it by industry or various levels of government.

Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics,

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