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Canadian farms need foreign workers

The Conference Board of Canada says the industry is facing a growing labour crunch

Just paying Canadians more to work in the farm sector or further automating farms "may not be possible," the Conference Board of Canada writes.

Canadian agriculture faces a serious roadblock to future expansion through a growing shortage of workers with the right skills, says a report from the Conference Board of Canada.

The report, entitled Sowing the Seeds of Growth, says the agriculture sector is “on a seemingly unsustainable path, with an ever-growing labour gap that is likely to double to 113,800 positions by 2025. If the labour gap is left unfilled, it will have serious implications for the future growth of the sector.

“Over the past decade, the difference between the available supply of domestic workers willing to work in agriculture and the sector’s demand for workers has more than doubled,” adds the report from the business organization.

Meanwhile, “the sector has been able to fill about three-quarters of its labour gap with temporary foreign workers, such that they now account for more than one in 10 people in the sector’s workforce.”

Mark Wales, chair of the Canadian Agriculture Human Resources Council, which collaborated with the board on the study, made the labour shortage challenges of agriculture absolutely clear. The board also released a report that shows the aquaculture industry has a comparable labour challenge.

“The agriculture sector has the highest job vacancy rate in Canada; it’s at seven per cent while most sectors are one to 1.5 per cent,” Wales added in an interview. Attracting foreign workers is essential “because we do not have enough Canadian workers to do the job.”

The council and the board worked to compile evidence to demonstrate to the federal government the special needs of agriculture. The situation is much the same in the processing sector, he noted.

“They’re losing profitability because of worker shortages and every time we lose a processing plant, the whole sector suffers,” he says. “We’re the No. 1 industry in Canada and we have incredible growth potential, especially in exports.”

The federal government needs to consider “re-evaluating the effectiveness of Canada’s immigration programs in terms of meeting the needs of the agriculture sector,” the report continues. That should include establishing a trusted employer program and allowing temporary workers in sectors with clearly demonstrated needs. The need for seasonal and temporary foreign workers will likely rise as well, as farms crank up production to meet a growing global food demand.

Despite good wages, farms face worker recruitment challenges because of “an aging workforce, large seasonal fluctuations in employment, the rural location of many operations, and negative perceptions about working in the sector,” the report notes. “Simply paying Canadians more to work in the sector or buying more machines may not be possible and will not eliminate the sector’s need for temporary foreign workers (TFWs).”

The way to look at the issue is “rather than bringing the farms to where the workers are, we are bringing the workers to the farms. Without TFWs it is likely that a significant portion of Canadian farmland would lie fallow.”

TFWs “have contributed to the growth in agricultural production over the past decade. As well, by alleviating shortages and preventing the closure of agricultural businesses, TFWs have supported the employment of Canadians in the sector.

Agriculture “has the largest seasonal fluctuations in employment of any major sector,” the report points out. “At its seasonal peak, the sector needs about 100,000 more people than at seasonal lows. This is a key reason why more than three-quarters of the TFWs who work in agriculture arrive under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP).”

More pay is not the panacea for attracting Canadians that many think. “Wages in agriculture have risen relative to the average for all sectors over the past 15 years,” but that hasn’t induced many Canadians to work in the sector.

The report is based on a three-year research project to examine the agriculture labour market situation. It included a survey of and interviews with more than 1,000 employers, workers, and stakeholders in the sectors.

Feedback from both focus groups and interviews with numerous agricultural producers suggest that the seasonal program has worked well in addressing worker shortages, the report notes. Farms would make more use of TFWs but for the time-consuming task of filling out federal labour market impact assessments.

The largest limitation of both the seasonal and TFW programs is for farmers whose production isn’t included in the National Commodities list including most grain and oilseed crops.

“It is also worth noting that agriculture is now by far the largest employer of TFWs,” the report said.

Almost two-thirds are in the agriculture sector. This is a recent phenomenon and especially critical to the horticulture sector.

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