Finding farm help challenging

The Temporary Foreign Workers Program has had bad press in recent years, but it remains useful to farmers and food processors, says Alan Dooley.

“The temporary foreign worker program, I think it’s great and I think a lot of the people … would say it’s a lifesaver,” said Dooley, who works in agricultural labour recruitment for Alberta Agriculture.

He said the program isn’t without its problems, involving cost and red tape, but it remains a useful tool.

Changes were made to the program last year after reported abuse of the program in food service and mining. However, agriculture was largely exempt from those changes.

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Dooley told a Sept. 8 webinar on farm labour recruitment strategies that Alberta’s six percent unemployment level is slightly below the Canadian level of 6.8.

However, the provincial rate was less than five percent before oil prices crashed and has been as low as 3.5 percent.

Anything below five percent is considered full employment.

He said higher wages in the oil and gas sector are one reason farmers and others in agricultural businesses have had trouble finding employees, but the problem persists even with recent job losses in the energy sector.

Farmers or others in primary agriculture who want to hire temporary foreign workers must advertise the available position for 14 days in various media, including jobbank.gc.ca.

Dooley said the advertising should run until the next step in the process is approved, that being a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA).

Employment and Social Development Canada does the LMIA to determine that attempts to hire domestic workers have been unsuccessful.

Dooley also recommended that farmers keep records of domestic applications they receive, along with reasons why those applicants were not hired.

“There can be lots of good reasons,” he said.

Once done, the LMIA is sent to the designated foreign worker, who will take it to the closest embassy to receive authorization. The worker will be given a work permit upon arrival in Canada.

“It all sounds pretty easy when you say it fast,” said Dooley, but he admitted there can be challenges.

A better-known program by virtue of its 30 to 40 year history is the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program (SAWP), which applies only to workers from Mexico and 11 Caribbean countries and is only for primary agriculture jobs in certain commodities. The list does not include grain production.

“The beautiful thing, I think, from an employer’s point of view about the SAWP, is that the … (source) country … will help you find the workers.”

Workers hired under SAWP can work a maximum of eight months in Canada, with the employer paying for transportation to Canada and from housing to the work site.

Dooley said free approved housing must be provided, and the local health authority generally provides the approval.

Worker’s compensation board coverage is mandatory, as is an employment contract.

Wages are set by Employment and Skills Development Canada and might increase when the Alberta government makes good on its plans to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. However, most set wages are now lower than that.

Workers hired under SAWP can return year after year, which is unique to that program, said Dooley.

Another program available to farmers through TFWP is the agricultural stream, which mirrors SAWP in some ways but allows workers to be hired from all countries.

Once again, grain farmers cannot use this stream but it is available for other types of primary agriculture and can be for seasonal or full-time employees.

Workers can stay and work in Canada for only four years, after which they must leave for four years.

Dooley said the time limit has been an issue for many employers, who have trained and developed workers only to lose them once four years have passed.

The agriculture stream also requires the employer to pay for transportation, but some reimbursement is possible. Approved housing, health insurance and workplace safety insurance are required. Employers can charge employees for housing, up to a specified amount.

Employers can also use the permanent resident nominee program.

“If you can bring in a skilled farm worker, they are eligible under the immigrant nominee program, and then if you like them and they like you, you can keep them and they can stay…. None of this four in, four out business,” said Dooley.

This program is run by Job Skills Training and Labour in Alberta and is mainly employer driven.

Workers under this program who are deemed skilled or semi-skilled can apply for permanent residence, but those deemed low skilled are not eligible unless it can be proven the worker has developed more advanced roles or skills in the agriculture business, said Dooley.

The limitation of the immigrant nominee program is that there are only 5,500 allocations in Alberta per year across all sectors, not just agriculture.

“It sounds like a lot, but it’s really not that many, particularly when you realize how tight our employment situation has been in the past.”

Dooley said there is a queue of 10,000 people in the immigrant nominee program right now, so it will take about two years to process them.

The program also recently gave notice that it would not accept additional applications until January.

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