Lack of labourers biggest issue facing beekeepers

While winter kill and pesticide use are big issues in the media, beekeepers say their biggest problem is rules around foreign workers

For more than four years, Canadian beekeepers have been asking the federal government to change the rules for temporary foreign workers.

Pesticides and their impact on colony health have dominated the news around bees in Canada, but temporary foreign workers and human resource issues are a much larger headache for beekeepers.

“For commercial beekeepers it’s the biggest issue they have on the table. That includes bee health… and anything else,” said Rod Scarlett of the Canadian Honey Council.

In 2011 the former Conservative government changed the TFW program, reducing the number of years a worker could remain in Canada.

Known as the four and four rule, if a foreigner worked in Canada for a cumulative total of four years the worker became ineligible to work in the country for four years.

Beekeepers have said the rule is ridiculous and is damaging to the country’s honey industry. It can take years to train a foreign worker or for that person to become competent in English. Forcing someone to leave, after they’ve become a skilled employee, makes no sense.

“A lot of our beekeepers have staff of 10, 30 or 40 foreign workers. They (the employees) develop an expertise that makes the operation successful,” Scarlett said.

“If they leave they can find em-ployment in New Zealand or Australia, which is our competition (for honey production)…. It (the rule) allows us to train employees for our competition.”

The House of Commons is scheduled to return to session Sept. 19 and shortly after politicians will hear a report on TFW from the standing committee on human resources.

The parliamentary committee held hearings on the TFW program in the spring, as the government is planning to modify the system. A number of organizations and companies from the agri-food industry made presentations to the committee, including Maple Leaf Foods, Hylife, the National Cattle Feeders Association and the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council.

The committee’s report won’t be the final word on TFW because the program also spills into the realm of Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

The immigration minister, John McCallum, hinted this summer that the government might simplify or eliminate the Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) for certain categories of foreign workers.

Employers must apply for a LMIA before hiring a foreign worker, to demonstrate that no Canadians are available to do the job.

Beekeepers and others in the agri-food sector have complained that the process is painfully slow, as it can take months for the government to process a LMIA and ap-prove the hiring of a foreigner.

Ron Davidson, Canadian Meat Council director of trade, media and government relations, said the meat industry isn’t overly concerned with the LMIA process. They’re more worried about 2014 changes to the TFW program.

In the spring of 2014 the feds modified the program but agricultural producers were exempt from the new restrictions.

One key change was the amount of time that foreigners can remain in Canada. Now foreign workers can only stay in the country two years: a one-year work permit plus a one-year extension. Previously they could stay four years: a two-year permit plus a two-year extension.

Maple Leaf Foods and others in the meat sector say the new rule has “broken” the path for foreign workers to become permanent residents because there isn’t enough time to learn English.

“With the old system we (meat companies) were operating huge language classes to prepare people for full integration into the Canadian economy,” Davidson said. “Now because of the current requirements we’re having to restrict, to a significant extent, the sources of workers to Anglophone countries, or Francophone.”

The Meat Council is open to other policies that will restore the flow of foreign workers and help people become permanent residents. But a solution is needed, soon, because there are hundreds of vacant positions at meat processing plants and at some point the lack of labour becomes unsustainable.

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