Meat packers demand change to foreign worker limits

Within the meat processing sector, only 10 percent or 20 percent of packing plant's workforce can now be temporary foreign workers. | Facebook/JBS Canada photo

A shortage of workers in Canada's meat-packing industry is not new. Companies in Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and elsewhere have struggled to recruit and retain employees for decades.

In the last 18 months, some have blamed the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit for making the situation worse as some workers choose to stay at home, but the meat sector is much more concerned about the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and how it is restricting meat processing in Canada.

In 2014, the federal government (under the Conservative party) restructured the temporary foreign worker program, claiming too many companies were hiring foreign workers instead of Canadians.

"By limiting access to the program, tightening the labour market assessment and implementing stronger enforcement with tougher penalties for employers who break the rules, businesses will have to make greater efforts to recruit and train Canadians for available jobs, including increasing wages," the federal government said in June 2014.

As part of the changes, the feds reduced the number of foreign workers that a company can employ.

Within the meat processing sector, only 10 percent or 20 percent of packing plant's workforce can now be temporary foreign workers.

The 10 or 20 percent limit depends on the company and how the meat packer was using the program before June 2014.

Now, a plant with 1,000 employees is limited to 100 foreign workers. If the plant is already at 100 TFW, the company must hire Canadians to fill vacant positions. That's not easy, as few Canadians want to live in rural areas or work at a slaughter plant.

"Our meat processors are having a hard time finding Canadians who are interested in these jobs," said Marie-France Mackinnon, vice-president of public affairs and communications with the Canadian Meat Council.

Even students who take training to become meat cutters and butchers at Olds College in Alberta don't want to work at meat processing plants.

"After their certificate (they) don't choose to work for any of our members," Mackinnon said. "They want to… go to Co-Op or Safeway, or open their own butcher shop."

The limit on the number of TFW is forcing meat companies to make difficult choices. Some are shutting down production lines and others are shipping cuts of meat to other plants, perhaps in the United States for further processing.

The cap on TFW is detrimental to Canada's meat industry and the country's economy, the meat council said in a document outlining its priorities for the federal election.

"The cap restricts growth for abattoirs by limiting expansion plans, restricting immigration growth for rural Canada, and not allowing the industry to increase its export capacity."

The meat council wants the next federal government to adjust the 10-20 percent cap on TFW, so it's fair for all meat packers and allows the industry to succeed.

"It's really a cap on processing capacity and our sector's growth potential," Mackinnon said.

"It isn't a partisan issue. It's an economic issue for Canada."

Party positions on ag labour

The Conservative party has a position on the labour shortage in agriculture, while the NDP and Liberals do not.

The Conservatives promise to better support farmers and food processors by making sure they have "access to the workers they need." The new agriculture minister for the Tories, if the party is elected, will develop a strategy to deal with the labour shortage and will recognize the "need for international farm workers and facilitate their timely entrance into Canada."

The NDP platform includes sections on immigration and rural Canada, but does not mention the ag labour shortfall.

The Liberals in their commitments mention support for dairy, egg and poultry farmers and plans to reduce the risks from pesticides, but they don't include a commitment on the agri-food labour issue.

Source: Staff research

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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