In January, there were more than 4,100 job vacancies for meat cutters and butchers at meat packing plants in Canada. The number of vacancies is now higher, as companies that process pork, beef and other livestock cannot hire enough Canadians or temporary foreign workers to fill the jobs.
"Since we ran the survey… the numbers have increased dramatically since February. We were hearing that while things were awful (this winter), they are now worse," said Marie-France Mackinnon, vice-president, public affairs and communications with the Canadian Meat Council.
The 4,100 figure is based on a meat council survey of Canadian packers. The January survey found that 11 percent of jobs at meat processing plants were unfilled.
A few years ago the percentage of unfilled jobs was significantly lower, when about 1,600 meat-packing jobs were vacant.
The labour shortage is also affecting mushroom farmers in Canada.
The job vacancy rate in that segment of agriculture is about 20 percent, Mushrooms Canada said in a news release.
Across the entire agriculture and agri-food sector, tens of thousands of jobs are unfilled at feedlots, packing plants and on farms.
"No matter who is elected, food made in Canada needs to be prioritized, and the farm labour crisis will need to be addressed," said Ryan Koeslag, executive vice-president of Mushrooms Canada.
The CMC and Mushrooms Canada have different priorities, but both are asking Canada's next government to make it easier for temporary foreign workers to become permanent residents of Canada.
"There's nothing temporary about jobs in our sector…. They're permanent and most are unionized," Mackinnon said, describing packing plant jobs. "Some of our research shows that once we give a TFW a path to permanent residency… they actually stay in rural Canada with that company for over 10 years."
In 2020, the federal government did take action on the agri-food labour crisis.
In May of that year, the Liberals launched the Agri-Food Immigration Pilot. It created 2,750 spots, per year, for ag workers to become permanent residents.
The pilot program, though, hasn't attracted many applicants.
A source told The Western Producer that only 165 applied for the Agri-Food Immigration Pilot in 2020. Many didn't apply because of the education criteria.
"They (Immigration and Citizenship Canada) are insisting they need to have education equivalency of Grade 12 in the province (in which they are working)," said Janet Krayden, workforce expert with Mushrooms Canada.
A worker may have Grade 11 from their home country, say the Philippines, but that doesn't meet the criteria of the majority of provincial nominee programs, even if they've worked in Canada for years. For the federal pilot, even though it does not require equivalency, obtaining high school certificates for the mature adult living in Canada for years, can be next to impossible.
"They've been in the plant for five years, or (on a farm) for five years… and they can't get that certificate. And we're going to penalize them (for not having a Grade 12 diploma)," Krayden said.
Mackinnon agreed that the Grade 12 diploma is an unnecessary roadblock, especially at a time of COVID when workers cannot easily return to their home country and get their diploma. Plus, the education criteria is overly rigid, seeing how the workers already have jobs and the farm and food processing skills that are desperately needed in Canada, Krayden said.
"They will have jobs anywhere in Canada, once they move to permanent residence…. Anybody with agricultural experience is highly in demand."
Of the 4,000 people who work at mushroom farms in Canada, about 900 are temporary foreign workers. A third of those workers, around 300, would like to remain in Canada and become permanent residents, Krayden said.
"But this program won't let them stay because we can't get their frigging high school certificate. And there are so many like that."
The obstacles built into the Agri-Food Immigration Pilot can be fixed, but employees of Immigration and Citizenship Canada must be flexible about the requirements so a TFW already working in Canadian agriculture can become a permanent resident.
"These are common-sense things that are not going to hurt anyone," Krayden said. "If you get the politicians in a room and you talk to them about this, they all say they are in favour of this."
The political enthusiasm for the program seems to dissipate when it gets to the bureaucratic level. That's likely because the job of a bureacrat is to apply the rules of the program. And the rules say that foreign workers must meet the education requirements.
Currently, that requirement is preventing foreign workers at mushroom farms, meat packing plants and other agri-food jobs from becoming permanent residents.
"No matter who wins (the election) we would like to see the agri-food immigration pilot made permanent. And let's adjust the criteria to give the workers a chance," Krayden said.
"Not every worker wants to stay (in Canada). We know that. (But) if they want to stay, why is the immigration department preventing it?"