Comment: COVID-19 shows Canada’s need for an agri-food labour strategy

In a complex economic sector, many solutions are needed for this intractable problem

Canadian agriculture has had problems with insufficient and unstable labour supply for decades.

In 2019, primary agriculture brought in over 60,000 temporary foreign workers and still had over 16,000 vacancies. In 2017, on-farm agriculture had the highest job vacancy rate of any industry at 5.4 per cent. The current labour gap is 63,000 employees and is predicted to reach 123,000 by 2029.

Even with these issues, Canadian agriculture and agri-food has been a powerhouse of the economy, providing one in eight jobs and $142 billion to Canada’s GDP. Only by dealing with these systemic labour problems can Canadian agriculture unleash its true potential and be a powerful economic engine during Canada’s recovery phase.

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The need for a more strategic approach to Canadian agri-food labour has been long recognized, as seen through recommendations from the Minister of Finance’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth in 2017 and again under the Agri-Food Economic Strategy table in 2019. Canadian agriculture’s amazing potential was also outlined in the Farmer 4.0 Report from the Royal Bank of Canada. Recommendations from these reports on labour include:

  • Continuing to monitor the labour situation with quality labour market intelligence research;
  • Increasing the supply of labour by improving access to temporary foreign workers (TFW) and generating domestic interest in careers in agriculture;
  • Improving the knowledge and skills of industry workers, supervisors, managers and owners to support evolving requirements and production success into the future.

While many of these recommendations were initially to support the growth of the Canadian agriculture sector to harness its economic potential, COVID-19 has shown that the current agri-food labour system is vulnerable to disruptions, even those that happen outside of Canada.

Canadian agriculture is a complex sector, with the labour needs of each farmer being different depending on their location, the crops or animals that they grow, or even the weather. Due to this, a long-term, comprehensive labour strategy has seen limited progress, with short-term labour challenges occupying much of the energy of industry and governments alike.

However, the pandemic has clearly shown the need for a resilient national labour strategy that will stabilize worker availability through the pandemic and beyond. It also highlighted a need for further investments in automation and labour-saving technologies in order to lessen the sector’s reliance on workers.

Keeping agriculture businesses operational has not been easy, for either industry or government. Many face extensive labour shortages, as well as challenges involved in keeping all farm workers protected, to the extent possible, from the risks presented by the pandemic.

COVID-19 has highlighted not only how complex it is to maintain public health during a pandemic, but also just how difficult it is to manage workforce issues in this industry when international labour mobility constraints and workplace safety concerns abound.

In past periods of economic difficulty, Canadian agriculture has shown to be a resilient industry due to its essential nature in providing food for Canadians and consumers around the world.

Focused discussions on a long-term labour strategy, bringing together the voices of farm workers, employers, and all relevant departments and levels of government, will be critical in helping Canada’s agri-food sector become an important economic engine for Canada’s recovery. Simultaneously, it can build added resilience in Canada’s food supply and provide food for countries in more dire circumstances.

Building on lessons learned through COVID-19, this strategy must devise short-, medium- and long-term work plans to mobilize action in support of Canada’s economic recovery.

This would include investments in priority areas to reduce job vacancies through career promotion, streamlining the temporary foreign worker program, improving immigration options for sector workers, improving skills training opportunities for workers, including human resource management training and certification demonstrating quality practices, and strategic investments to support commercialization of labour-saving technologies and automation. Any investments in technology must be coupled with a push for rural broadband, as this infrastructure is critical to take advantage of emerging technologies.

Through these investments, Canada’s agri-food industry will position itself for the future with the skills, workforce and technologies required, while reducing uncertainty and spurring growth during this critical economic recovery period.

Canada’s agriculture industry cannot continue to produce nutritious, safe and affordable food for Canadians and for global consumers without a secure workforce in place, as the contributions of Canada’s farm and food workers are critical drivers of the sector’s success.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a greater spotlight on this and confirmed that there is no more time to waste – together, industry and government must work toward longer-term and systemic solutions to the persistent labour shortages the agriculture industry is facing.

The Honourable Robert Black is a Canadian senator representing Ontario with strong interests in agriculture and rural communities. Mary Robinson is the president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA). Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst is the executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC).

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