Ag is finally at the immigration table

Farmers and farm workers feel we finally have a seat at the Canadian immigration table with the recent Agri-Food Immigration Pilot.

The new immigration pilot will allow 2,750 federal immigration spots for farm workers and butchers of all skill levels employed in year-round occupations to have a chance to immigrate in all provinces.

It is needed because Canadian farms have a massive labour shortage. Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) research shows agriculture’s 16,500 vacancies are larger than any Canadian sector with $2.9 billion in lost sales to the Canadian economy — double what it was in 2014.

In 2017, Canadian mushroom farms had a 9.7 percent job vacancy rate. That’s now climbed to 19.3 percent. Unfilled jobs mean we have to throw out 23 percent of our harvest — an annual loss of nearly $50 million.

The demand is greatest for jobs classified as lower-skilled (mushroom pickers/harvesters).

The labour shortage affects farmers’ ability to produce food and expand their farms, increases food imports, drives up food costs and affects the availability of local, fresh food.

It underlines the need for Canadian farmers to access programs like the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) and the new immigration pilot for agricultural year-round jobs.

Agriculture contributes $111 billion per year to the national economy, over six percent of Canada’s gross domestic product. That’s $304 million per day and 2.3 million jobs. Mushroom farms contribute more than $900 million to the Canadian economy annually and create 4,000 jobs with competitive wages and benefits. Growth and export potential for mushrooms is phenomenal increasing by $50 million last year alone.

Seventy percent of workers on mushroom farms are Canadian, but when Canadians do not apply, access to international workers is important.

Entry-level mushroom workers start at minimum wage and receive months of training, and experienced workers make up to $29 per hour.

Supervisors earn between $35,000 to more than $80,000 per year. Canadian Mushroom Growers also support a Trusted Employer Program, fair labour standards and ethical recruitment practices.

While we strongly support the new Agri-Food Immigration Pilot, we think the new TFWP occupation work permit changes are the wrong direction. No study has been conducted regarding this new TFWP change that will impact the labour market and the Canadian economy. A study should include Canadian farm employers, international farm workers active in the program and Canadian farm workers.

We value and respect our agricultural temporary foreign workers who are filling very real job vacancies for work Canadians are not applying for.

We are worried the change will increase the farm labour shortage, and we also have other concerns.

How will workers in the TFWP be tracked? Could this lead to workers entering the underground economy? Is there a risk that workers could be recruited by unscrupulous individuals and end up victimized by traffickers?

There are problems with the current program but we can address these concerns.

Abuse should result in swift removal from the TFWP. As well, we would also like to see the TFWP protect workers by adopting Respect for Access to Remedy provisions, as outlined by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and provincial labour standards that are missing in the TFWP. Legislation should be strengthened on the definitions of abuse and the consequences for abuse. As well, there needs to be protection against reprisals for reporting employers, a robust conflict resolution system for employees and employers, and work permit timelines for vulnerable workers.

In a time of trade wars, we must ensure we research changes to the TFWP that could bring unintended consequences for vulnerable workers and our food system.

Work in rural Canada has value. We need more people in rural Canada. We’re grateful we are at the table.

And now it’s time to give rural Canada a chance.

We need more incentives for temporary foreign workers and new immigrants to work in rural areas to fill the job vacancies. For year-round jobs like mushrooms, we need time to support workers who are interested in farm work and time to settle them in our communities on their pathway to permanent residency.

For our workers and farm employers to be successful, more time is what we need, not more labour shortages and bureaucracy.

Ryan Koeslag is executive vice-president of the Canadian Mushroom Growers Association.

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