Producers wait to hear about summer jobs program

Ottawa is reviewing requests from employers to determine which ones will qualify to have 100 percent of wages covered

Agricultural employers are still waiting to find out whether changes to the Canada Summer Jobs program will result in more workers for the sector.

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said April 15 officials are reviewing requests from employers to see which ones will qualify to have 100 percent of their employees’ salaries covered.

Bibeau said decisions would be finalized soon but no specific date was given.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced changes to the Canada Summer Jobs program aimed at businesses delivering essential services with fewer than 50 employees.

The move came shortly after the federal government deemed the entire food supply chain an essential service, meaning certain producers and food processors could apply to employ people under the expanded program.

“We will put a priority on those offering essential services,” Bibeau said, adding employers will be informed “shortly” of whether or not they will receive federal dollars from the program.

Concerns over labour shortages in the agriculture sector are mounting as restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic worsen the problems the sector already faced finding enough workers.

“We are in a situation where we are facing an even greater labour shortage,” Bibeau said, adding there will be delays or a lack of foreign workers no matter what. “So we have to compensate and we know that we have a great number of Canadians who are unemployed right now.”

A little more than one million jobs were lost in March, with employment levels dropping by 5.3 percent, according to Statistics Canada. The unemployment rate now sits at 7.8 percent and is expected to rise.

Meanwhile, it’s estimated there are only about 15,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada, well below the 56,765 that arrived in 2018. According to the federal government, producers have applied for a total of 10,181 positions through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) in 2020.

Approval to hire temporary foreign workers has been granted to 983 businesses for 9,113 positions between January and the end of March.

Bibeau said the rate of temporary or seasonal workers entering Canada is “a bit behind the curve” relative to other years while the industry continues to be challenged by transportation issues and isolation requirements for workers arriving in Canada.

The federal government has made it easier for employers to hire Canadian workers by offering to pay wages, but there has been no action yet to encourage unemployed Canadians to find work in agriculture.

The industry has become increasingly reliant on foreign workers because it is generally work Canadians don’t want or need.

“We are actually looking at ways to encourage Canadians to work in the food industry to work in farms and processing plants,” said Bibeau, later admitting that “it’s a challenge… but we still have to do even more to encourage (Canadians) to join the industry.”

A group of 22 senators have written to the federal government asking it to consider allowing Canadians employed in positions typically filled by temporary or seasonal agricultural workers to continue receiving emergency response benefits while they do farm work.

The senators also suggested Canadians working on farms should continue to receive employment insurance benefits without having their earnings clawed back. As well, they asked the federal government to pay for accommodations for those who would usually live on a farm in a communal setting.

Industry associations echoed those calls.

“We’re trying to figure out if we can find a wider way to support a greater number of producers or if we will have to go through ad hoc, you know, programs, which would be specific to one sector and another. So we are getting there right now,” Bibeau said. “I know that our farmers deserve, you know, more support … and we’re working really hard on that right now. A variety of recommendations are coming from the different sectors right now. So we are sorting this out.”

The government announced last week it is offering $1,500 for each temporary foreign worker coming to Canada to help farmers, fish harvesters, producers and processors cover costs related to containing COVID-19.

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