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URGENT: More temporary foreign workers needed

URGENT: More temporary foreign workers needed

Beef producers and packers may not always see eye to eye, but on two things they definitely agree — there’s a critical and chronic labour shortage at farms, ranches, feedlots and packing plants across the country and this issue needs a quick fix. Not a Band-Aid-style quick fix, but a well-thought-out strategy put into action — yesterday.

The Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector has been proposing such a strategy since last spring. It’s called the Canadian agricultural and agri-food workforce action plan and it was developed over three years by a labour task force representing the food business from farm to retail.

One recommendation calls for a dedicated program that industry can depend on to provide consistent access to international agriculture workers.

So when Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk told the Globe and Mail on February 17 that she would ask a parliamentary committee for proposals to fix the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program, the Canadian Meat Council (CMC) was quick to press the point that time is of the essence. Under current legislation the cap on the maximum percentage of temporary foreign workers drops to 10 per cent as of July 1.

This is the final step in the Conservative government’s three-step reduction of the TFW. In 2014 the maximum percentage of temporary foreign workers was frozen at 30 per cent for businesses with 10 or more employees, then dropped to 20 per cent on July 1, 2015, and finally 10 per cent this July, although the government of the day did say it could be lowered another notch. In this way the government expected to reduce the total number of temporary foreign workers by 50 per cent over the three years.

In retrospect, that might seem a wise policy move given all of the Canadians looking for work these days, but it has been devastating to Canada’s meat packers and processors who already employ 65,000 people and are frantically looking to fill upwards of 1,000 positions at any given time.

The reality is western Canadian packers and processors have seen only a small increase in the number of applications for jobs since the TFW was overhauled.

“The number of former oil-patch workers who are willing to become butchers is very limited and those who are willing usually intend to return to the oil sector at the first opportunity,” says Ron Davidson, CMC director of international trade, government and media relations.

“The meat processing sector is the largest component of the Canadian food processing sector and recruits constantly, intensively and nationally across this country, including among the unemployed, First Nations, new immigrants, refugees and youth. The first preference is to recruit workers from within Canada.”

In order to be approved to recruit foreign-origin workers, a packer or processor must provide the government with a detailed labour market impact assessment (LMIA) as evidence that every effort has been made to recruit Canadians and that they are either not available or unwilling to move to semi-urban or rural communities to work in the meat industry.

When the new program came into effect on June 20, 2014, the LMIA fee increased from $275 to $1,000 for every temporary foreign worker position an employer requests. If a Service Canada officer rejects a LMIA for any reason whatsoever, the entire application fee is forfeited without opportunity for appeal, regardless of whether the application was for one worker ($1,000) or 50 workers ($50,000).

Review to-dos

At the time of writing in mid-March, the government had formally announced a review of the TFW program. Davidson says it will be conducted by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.

The CMC will make the case for relaxing the percentage limitations on the number of temporary foreign workers when it can be clearly demonstrated that Canadians aren’t willing to fill these jobs.

There was no limit on the number of temporary foreign workers before 2014.

“Typically, the number of temporary foreign workers in a meat plant would rise during an expansion of capacity and then trend downward from the peak as the majority of temporary foreign workers would be accepted as permanent residents,” Davidson explains.

The CMC will ask the committee to restore a two-year term for work permits under the TFW plus an option for a further two years. The overhaul reduced the term to one year plus a year.

The four years under the original program gave workers time to gain skills, learn English and become integrated into the community before they apply for permanent resident status. Two years makes it much more difficult for those who wish to become Canadians.

The government instituted an electronic Express Entry management system in January 2015 to expedite applications for permanent residency for skilled workers but unfortunately industrial butchers aren’t eligible for this shotcut. Yet the meat trade is experiencing a chronic shortage of butchers and meat cutters. No surprise then that the industry’s workforce action plan calls for all agriculture and agri-food workers to become eligible for the Express Entry program.

Ripple effect

The meat processing sector generates $5.7 billion a year in export sales and $23.6 billion in total.

Whether it’s 100 empty work spaces at a large facility or five at a small one, the negative effects ripple through the related sectors, hitting rural communities the hardest. For every job not filled on the production line, four others are lost in the wider community. Even government cannot escape as the flow of taxable income shrinks with labour shortages.

Upstream, the livestock sector becomes less competitive. Canada is missing opportunities around the globe as it is, Davidson says, and more will fall out of reach if jobs aren’t filled as new trade agreements come into force.

That’s why the National Cattle Feeders’ Association has been onside with packers on this issue since the overhaul.

“For cattle feeders, a clear priority is to ensure that labour shortages in all aspects of beef production are addressed, including the labour needs of Canadian processors,” says NCFA policy and research manager Casey Vander Ploeg.

Cattle feeders have seen only a slight increase in applications for employment since the oil market meltdown, even though on-farm primary agriculture, including the seasonal agricultural worker program, is exempt from the 10-per-cent cap, and other restrictions placed on the TFW program.

Low-wage tag misleading

A point often misunderstood by the general public is that a temporary foreign worker employed in a low-wage position doesn’t automatically receive a low wage. Low-wage is a program classification. It means any wage, including a starting wage, lower than the provincial average, and thus differs from province to province.

Davidson says the meat industry not only recruits full-time workers, but workers receive substantive pay and benefits packages.

Starting wages for butchers exceed the minimums. Scrolling through the five full pages of job listings for butchers posted on the ESDC Job Bank alone on March 7, he finds offers from JBS in Alberta with starting hourly wages ranging from $16 to $21.85, Britco Pork in British Columbia at $13 to $16, and HyLife Foods in Manitoba at $13.55 to $19.90.

These three companies were advertising more than 200 positions and there were 121 companies on the list that day, leaving no doubt that there is a persistent shortage of butchers in Canada.

“In addition to wages, benefits include medical, dental and vision insurance and retirement. Most meat industry workers are members of strong unions and foreign-origin workers are no exception. They become union members immediately and receive the same pay and benefits as workers recruited in Canada,” Davidson explains.

Ongoing classroom and on-the-job training is provided for all workers and it can take up to a year for a meat cutter to become a highly skilled butcher. Some workers, whether from Canada or elsewhere, never reach the level of knowledge, skill and dexterity required to prepare meat cuts to Canadian and export retail specs, he adds.

Companies incur additional expenses for foreign-origin workers, due to the time taken up in paperwork, LMIA application fees, support for new arrivals, language training, return airfare and ensuring that adequate accommodation is available.

For the same reasons, Vander Ploeg says cattle feeders always look first for Canadians to fill openings in their operations. Only as a last resort would they turn to programs like the TFW. They do, though, because feedlots, like the packers, find too few Canadians willing to do farm work, even with an entry-level wage of $18 to $20 per hour.

“At the end of the day it would be cheaper for cattle feeders to find and pay Canadian workers. It is more expensive to find and hire temporary foreign workers. Applying for temporary workers costs employers thousands of dollars and there is a lot of paperwork to complete. It also takes a lot of time. Employers would not be going through the significant upfront expense and the time-consuming process if they could at all avoid it,” says Vander Ploeg.

In summary, the livestock sector and the meat sector combined have thousands of unfilled jobs available across Canada at this very moment. The negative consequences go beyond rural businesses and communities to urban areas because thousands of spinoff jobs are not created. Everyone loses.

The CMC and NCFA, along with more than 60 other CAHRC partners, believe that the Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector workforce action plan offers a comprehensive roadmap for change that will benefit rural and urban Canadians across the country now and in the future.

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