Labour shortage should be addressed

Which candidates are talking about the labour dilemma in agriculture?

The answer is no one, despite the fact that a recent change to the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program has turned an existing labour shortage in the agriculture industry into a near-crisis that is not only affecting producers but also value-added industries.

The TFWP allows Canadian employers to hire foreign workers to fill jobs that are not being filled by Canadians. Many farmers rely on the TFWP, through its special agriculture stream component, because there is a small or non-existent pool of local workers in rural areas.

As any producer can attest, the farther away from a major centre, the harder it is to find workers.

It’s also hard to find local employees because many would-be local workers do not like the seasonal nature of working in agriculture.

The detrimental revision to the TFWP came into effect April 1. It stipulates that foreign workers, including those in the agriculture stream, must return home after working in Canada for a total of four years and must remain there for four years before returning.

This is referred to as the four-in/four-out rule, which has resulted in a drastic loss of foreign workers.

A beekeeper I know was without three out of four foreign workers at the beginning of the season, which forced him to work extra long hours at a frenzied pace, something that is neither safe nor sustainable. I’m sure that many other producers were also in the same boat.

I stress that the four-in/four-out regulatory change does not take into consideration the unique challenges of employing people on farms. There is often a prolonged training period that can last multiple years, which means that just as some workers reach full productivity, they will be required to return home. This, no doubt, will result in huge costs for producers.

In addition, a huge skills gap is being created as these highly trained workers leave. There is significant risk that the skills of these specialized workers, which Canadian farmers have invested in, will be used by Canada’s trade competitors.

As well, according to research by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council, it costs $12,000 to bring one foreign worker into the country, and now this cost must be borne more frequently as new workers come in to replace those who can no longer stay here.

Compounding the loss of workers and the expense is a change to the Labour Market Impact Assessment, a process that requires an employer to prove, before hiring a foreign worker, that a Canadian worker cannot be found for the job.

Producers are willing to do this, but the process is time-consuming and the change now requires them to go through the process every year instead of every two years, which is extremely frustrating.

The meat packing industry is short 1,000 workers, and the four-in/four-out rule is made worse by a cap on the number of temporary foreign workers that can be employed.

This year the cap is 20 percent and next year it’s 10 percent, which means plants with employee shortages are forced to reduce production, cutting back on the number of cattle and hogs they buy from farmers.

Theoretically, temporary foreign workers can apply for citizenship under individual provinces’ nominee programs, but the federal and provincial governments only consider high-skilled workers for immigration, which excludes general farm workers, who are classified as low-skilled.

Never mind that it takes considerable skill to run a half-million-dollar combine or supervise a 4,000-hive beekeeping operation.

Political parties and candidates need to take a long, hard look at these issues. Allowing temporary foreign workers to become citizens, and live and work in rural Canada may not only be the answer to the agricultural labour shortage, but also part of the solution to rural depopulation.

Dan Mazier is president of Keystone Agricultural Producers. He produces grains and oilseeds near Justice, Man.

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