Temporary foreign worker changes worry meat packers

Canada’s meat processing industry is “very concerned” about changes made to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, says Ron Davidson of the Canadian Meat Council.

The federal government unveiled a number of reforms to the program June 20, including a 10 percent cap on the proportion of a workforce that can be low-wage temporary foreign workers.

“The cap will significantly restrict access to the TFWP, while ensuring that Canadians are always considered first for available jobs, reducing employer reliance on the program and increasing wages offered to Canadians,” the government said in a news release.”

Davidson, director of international trade, government and media relations for the meat council, said it could be challenging for some processors to get under the 10 percent cap because the industry cannot convince Canadians to work at slaughter plants.

“We have tried to recruit Canadians, extensively and constantly. If you go on the job bank, eight CMC members have job opportunities and we aren’t getting Canadians to do these jobs,” he said.

“It’s particularly a problem for the rural areas, where the plants are located…. We don’t know more what we can do to recruit Canadians. That’s the problem. The whole industry is trying to do it, and we just aren’t getting people to (work).”

Employment and social development minister Jason Kenney said the changes are necessary to ensure Canadians are “first in line for available jobs.”

Davidson said the meat industry supports a crackdown on employers who abuse the program, but the proposed changes could affect capacity and production at Canadian meat packing plants.

“We do have plants that are over the 30 percent (limit). Not many but there are some,” he said.

“The changes announced were clearly substantial and significant for the meat industry. We are concerned and we’re trying to organize a meeting (with the government) to get a bit more clarification on how some of these rules are being interpreted.”

The federal government said the program changes, including the cap, fee increases and reduction in the period a foreign worker can remain in Canada, do not apply to primary agriculture. Feedlot operations are included in the exemption.

Davidson said the meat industry also asked the government for an exemption.

“Feeders did get the extension (exemption), so they’re now part of primary agriculture,” he said.

“In our meetings (with government), we had suggested this was a value chain problem for the livestock and meat industry…. If the plants aren’t able to run at capacity … it has an impact right through the whole value chain.”

Kenney and many critics of the TFW program have said some companies are too dependent on foreign workers, and employers should raise wages to attract more Canadians.

Claude Vielfaure, executive vice-president of Hylife, which produces 1.4 million pigs a year and operates a pork processing plant in Neepawa, Man., said Canada’s pork industry has to compete globally and pay wages appropriate to the region and sector.

Davidson said Canadian meat processors already pay higher wages than U.S. packers.

“We have companies that operate on both sides of the border,” he said.

“(Companies) have an option whether (they) process your meat in Canada or the United States.”

The federal government promised to reform the Temporary Foreign Worker Program following alleged abuses by fast food restaurants. Three McDonald’s restaurants in British Columbia allegedly gave more shifts to foreign workers, while a restaurant in Weyburn, Sask., fired long-time waitresses to hire foreign labour.

On June 20, the government introduced changes to the program, including:

• Employers with 10 or more employees are capped at 10 percent of the proportion of their workforce that can be temporary foreign workers.

• Companies that are above the 10 percent cap will be immediately limited to 30 percent or frozen at their current level, whatever is lower.

• During a transition period, the cap will be lowered to 20 percent July 1, 2015, and reduced to 10 percent July 1, 2016.

• The cumulative period during which low wage temporary foreign workers can remain in Canada will be reduced from two years to one.

• Companies will have to provide more information, such as the number of Canadians that applied for a particular job, and explain why applicants weren’t hired before they can hire a temporary foreign worker.

• The government will now charge $1,000 for every foreign worker requested by an employer. The previous fee was $275.

• On-farm primary agriculture is exempt from the changes, with the exception of tougher enforcement and penalties to employers who break the rules.

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