Labour program draws praise

OTTAWA — A three-year pilot program to bring in full-time, permanent agriculture workers for the meat industry is being applauded as a major win.

The details of the pilot announced in the recent federal budget have not been revealed, but the Canadian Meat Council is hoping it provides some relief for job vacancies. The pilot provides for 2,750 immigration spots for three years.

“There are close to 1,800 butcher positions that are not filled,” said Marie-France Mackinnon, spokesperson for the meat council, which represents packers and processors.

“Currently, our members are advertising everywhere in Canada but there are no Canadians taking up these jobs so therefore our alternative is to go to a temporary foreign worker program,” she said.

If people arrive as temporary foreign workers they have a short-term contract, but many have been able to transition to permanent residency through provincial nomination programs. Every province has a provincial nominee program but it works differently across the country.

The pilot would allow people to come in as permanent workers and there are provisions for people to eventually bring their families to Canada. The details are expected to be unveiled at the meat council’s annual meeting in June.

The need is great because plants cannot expand or fill orders.

“If you walk in any of our members’ plants you’ll see empty butchers’ stations and that affects a whole supply line,” she said.

“Canada is signing really great trade agreements like CPTPP and CETA, which provides so much amazing opportunity for our sector but our members cannot even reach status quo let alone take advantage of growing our export market.”

The packing sector is not alone in its struggle to find workers, said Janet Krayden of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, which researches labour needs and provides information on finding and retaining workers.

“We are coming up against a labour shortage wall,” she said at the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association annual meeting in Ottawa March 20-22.

“Some commodities have doubled in their labour shortage with the amount of international workers going up as well,” she said.

The agriculture workforce is 88 percent Canadian and 12 percent international workers.

The labour gap of 59,000 continues and in 10 years the industry could be short 114,000 jobs. Producers are losing $1.5 billion or 2.7 percent of the end total value of sales because they cannot find enough workers.

The seasonal worker program has been in place for about 50 years and works well, but other programs looking for permanent staff need fixing to streamline worker entry into Canada, she said.

Further, agriculture is not on the national occupation classifications released for immigrants. Many are highly skilled, technical positions.

“They are highly paid positions and what I would refer to as urban centric jobs,” Krayden said.

CAHRC research from 2014 shows the need exists for most commodities. New results are expected in June where the labour shortages will be greater:

  • Field, fruit and vegetables industry needs seasonal labourers and relies heavily on foreign workers. The sector reported 1,100 jobs were not filled, costing the industry $240 million.
  • The tree fruit and vine industry employs 26,100 people and in 2014, 25 percent of jobs could not be filled by Canadians.
  • Dairy demands for labour have declined due to productivity changes on farms. However, in 2014, 40 percent of dairy operators said they could not find enough skilled workers.
  • The beef sector could not fill 3,500 positions with domestic labour in 2014. This gap is expected to widen by 2025 with more than 12,500 jobs going unfilled.
  • Grain and oilseed farms are hiring more people as the sector grows. About 5,700 jobs were not filled in 2014. This cost the industry $569 million, which was the greatest loss of any agricultural industry.
  • The swine industry employs 14,000 people but the number of farms has sharply declined since 2005. However, in 2014, it could not fill 900 jobs.

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