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Comment: The clock is ticking on TFW

Late last month the beef industry got a glimmer of good news on the labour front when Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk officially requested a review of the Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) program.

Unfortunately it appears she didn’t do it fast enough or go far enough to stop the next scheduled cut to the program.

When the Conservatives overreacted to some caustic headlines and rapidly rewrote the TFW regulations back in 2014, they tightened up on the conditions under which a company could hire foreign workers and then froze the numbers they could employ at 30 per cent per work site for businesses with 10 or more employees. Then they added a slide, reducing the total to 20 per cent on July 1, 2015 and finally 10 per cent this July.

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If the minister is truly concerned with the fairness of the changes made to the TFW program you might think her first action would have been to extend this July 1 deadline until the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (HUMA for short) had a chance to study the current program and offer up ways to improve it.

Maritime fish processors were recently granted an exemption to the July reduction but as this issue goes to press there had been no announcement of a similar concession for meat processors.

The 10-member HUMA committee chaired by Cambridge, Ont., MP Bryan May, is currently dealing with Bill C-4, the Labour Act, and is then scheduled to wrap up a study on Employment Insurance. The best guess is they won’t get to the TFW study until June and possibly the fall. They plan to do it in 10 sessions in alternate weeks with another study on reducing poverty.

However it goes, it appears packers and processors will be forced to cut another 10 per cent of their foreign workers on July 1, unless the minister convinces the government to make an administrative change before then.

“We have plants already that when somebody leaves or retires they have no choice but to cut back on production,” says Ron Davidson, the Canadian Meat Council director of government and media relations.

“The other thing that is really important is every time you ratchet down the level you reduce the pool of temporary foreign workers that we were using as a pathway to permanency. ”

In the past as many as 70 per cent of the people in this pool who entered the country as temporary workers went on to become permanent residents of Canada. But as the size of that pool declines it becomes harder to manage the process.

This is particularly galling for an industry that is already facing a critical labour shortage. No matter how much time and effort they put into recruiting, on any given week there are consistently a thousand openings at plants around the country.

The Conservatives initially revamped the TFW program to avoid the appearance of these so-called low-wage workers being brought in to take jobs away from Canadians. The irony is these aren’t low-paying jobs. Most of them are in union shops offering competitive wages and benefits but are located in rural communities. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to attract people to work as butchers in rural communities in anything like the numbers that are needed to just maintain current production lines.

More details on the TFW program can be found in an article by Debbie Furber in our April 2016 issue of Canadian Cattlemen.

Of course meat packers are not the only agriculture sector struggling to find good help these days.

According to a labour market study released by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council last month, the number of unfilled jobs in the beef sector alone cost the industry $141 million in lost productivity and sales in 2014, and is expected to get much worse over the next decade.

According to this report we had 40,600 labourers in the Canadian beef industry in 2014, including 300 temporary foreign workers. At the same time 3,500 jobs went unfilled.

Over the next 10 years the study says the number of unfilled jobs could grow to 12,500, assuming we see some growth once the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the EU are eventually ratified.

Retiring cattle producers are projected to make up a third of these losses as those over 65 make up about 15 per cent of industry’s current labour force. Immigration will have to cover a portion of this shortfall, and some of those will no doubt enter this country under the Temporary Foreign Workers program.

At least we hope they will, if Minister Mihychuk and her friends around the cabinet table can agree to strip away the shackles from this proven program and let us all get back to work.

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Gren Winslow

Gren Winslow is a past editor of Canadian Cattlemen.

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