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September 15, 2015

Which candidates are talking about the labour dilemma in agriculture?
By Dan Mazier

The answer is no one – despite the fact that a recent change to the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) 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 they are away from a major centre, the harder it is for them to find workers.

Another reason for the difficulty in finding local employees is that 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 coming back.

This is referred to as the four-in/four-out rule, a requirement that has resulted in a drastic loss of foreign workers since its inception date.

A beekeeper I know was without three out of four foreign workers at the beginning of the season, and was forced to work extra long hours at a frenzied pace – something that is neither safe nor sustainable. And 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, meaning 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, as these highly-trained workers leave, a huge skills gap is being created. 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 (CAHRC), 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 that 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, prior to 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, something that is extremely frustrating for them.

In the meat-packing industry, where attracting labour is also a huge problem, they are 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 per cent of employees and next year it’s 10 per cent – and that 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. However, both the federal and provincial governments only consider high-skilled workers for immigration – something that 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.

CAHRC has worked with stakeholders from the industry to produce the Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Workforce Action Plan that stresses improving the domestic labour supply and creating better access to foreign workers. It also calls for improving workers’ training and knowledge.

The plan offers short-term solutions to our labour shortage, including addressing the four-in/ four-out rule and other concerns about the TFWP’s agriculture stream, as well as medium and long-term solutions.

It notes that our industry makes extensive efforts to employ Canadians, but when Canadians are not available, “dedicated pathways are needed to hire workers from abroad, with viable pathways to permanent residency for successful workers.”

I challenge all parties to read the plan, get acquainted with this pressing topic and make their positions known.

When the next government is formed, I hope it will be able to recognize the agriculture and meat-processing industries’ unique labour needs, and that it will work with agriculture and agri-food stakeholders to adopt the recommendations of the CAHRC report.

This will allow us to remain competitive on the world market and take advantage of new trade deals.

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