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Two-faced tories

One says expand, the other says shrink

The Harper government has to stop talking out of both sides of its mouth in its dealings with the beef industry in this country.

In June the government tabled the text of the Free Trade Agreement with South Korea in the House of Commons and our energetic Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announced China has begun the process of accepting bone-in under-30-month beef and live cattle from Canada.

In the same month the ministers responsible for employment, citizenship and immigration, Jason Kenney and Chris Alexander unveiled their dismemberment of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) which will almost certainly choke off any hope of expanding production at Canadian meat plants.

It’s been a frustrating dance for those who represent the industry, which is reflected in Dave Solverson’s column in the July issue of Canadian Cattlemen.

Primary agriculture including feedlots is largely excluded from the new restrictions but meat processors were tossed in with the food-service sector who employ “low-wage” workers.

This means the proportion of TFWP workers at any plant is now capped at 10 per cent. Plants over the cap are frozen at 30 per cent or their current level, although current workers will keep their jobs until their permit expires, and the plants have two more years to “transition” down to 10 per cent by July 1, 2016.

The Tories intend to make companies hire Canadians first when jobs are available. As we now know thanks to the media some fast-food restaurants were replacing Canadians with TFWP workers because they would work for less. No one argues with the value of hiring Canadians first. Packers would love to hire more, if only they would apply.

“Our challenge is to find enough workers to move to these locations in rural Canada which are usually in smaller towns,” points out Ron Davidson, director of international trade, government and media relations with the Canadian Meat Council (CMC).

It’s far less expensive to hire in Canada than recruit overseas.

But even extensive recruitment, Davidson says, has not been sufficient to keep plants running at capacity.

“The serious implications for competitiveness, and for thinking about doing any value added or for doing any additional exports if we can’t have our plants at capacity puts us at a very serious disadvantage in an open trading market.”

The day I talked to Ron, Employment and Social Development Canada’s own job site had five pages of positions for meat cutters on offer from B.C. to New Brunswick and that’s just a small sliver of what the industry requires.

A survey of Canadian meat plants last year found the average yearly turnover was running around 30 per cent. Sadly the turnover rate is much higher with Canadian workers than it is with foreign workers or permanent residents. In other words so-called temporary workers are more likely to settle down and become permanent residents and employees in these rural locations than Canadians who move across the country to find work.

Even with access to foreign workers and permanent residents many plants today have more than 100 unfilled positions cutting into their efficiency. Restrict their access to willing workers even further and their turnover rate is bound to be much higher. Imagine if you had to replace 40 per cent of your staff every year.

A temporary worker’s permit under the new policy only goes for two years, so one of the sad implications of finagling with a policy that was actually working quite well is that most TFWP workers will not have the time to meet the criteria to become permanent residents before their permit runs out. Instead, they will have to ply the skills they learned in Canada somewhere else.

Australia is as short of meat cutters as Canada, and Davidson says the Australian system considers them skilled workers worth holding on to.

The irony here is packers don’t want temporary workers. They need full-time employees, a lot of them every year, to keep their plants running at anything like a competitive level. To do that they offer a competitive wage, in many cases set under a union contract, which is generally more than what these workers can make in the U.S. for the same work.

Minister Kenney met with industry representatives and processors at a roundtable session in early July and while Davidson says their discussions were detailed and intensive, “we do not have a path forward at this point. We’re still trying to find one.”

If Minister Kenney cannot be convinced that a meat plant isn’t the same as an A&W in a city mall, then perhaps Minister Ritz should tone down his travel plans. Access is well and good, but only when you have product to sell.

About the author

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Gren Winslow

Gren Winslow is a past editor of Canadian Cattlemen.

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