Bill Martin’s phone has been ringing off the hook.
The vice-president of Saskatoon-based Farmers of North America got 30 calls in the first two days after his organization launched a new initiative last month to streamline the process of getting temporary foreign workers.
“Members started calling in immediately after receiving notifications,” said Martin.
“The feeling I had was kind of, ‘Oh, we’ve hit a sensitive spot here.’”
Prairie farmers have been scrambling for years to find and retain workers, many of whom are lured away by high wages in the oilpatch.
“The labour situation has become more difficult in recent years,” Martin said. “Farmers just can’t compete with oil money. They just can’t do it.”
After surveying their members and hearing the challenges they faced, the company looked for a business partner adept at navigating the regulations around temporary foreign workers. It has now joined forces with International Labour Canada, a company that brings in workers from areas in Eastern Europe, such as Ukraine, as well as from Ireland.
But it’s not cheap — with the fee typically running about $4,000 per worker.
Nor can you expect to save on wages, which range from $14 to $34 an hour, minus some expenses.
“To be clear, this is not an inexpensive option for farmers,” Martin said. “Anyone who might claim Canadian farmers want to use the program to get cheap labour are either misinformed or flatly malicious.”
But given the current labour shortage, farmers don’t have much choice, he said.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture estimates the country is short by roughly 30,000 seasonal farm workers, and the federal government also recognizes the problem. But the regulatory burden is daunting.
“You know, Immigration Canada, and Employment Canada may very well say that this is a simple process… but it’s not,” Martin said. “I’ve run across numerous examples of farmers telling me that, ‘Yeah, we’ve tried this before. We’ve tried to do it on our own and we’ve spent three years trying to jump through the hoops, and we ultimately gave up in frustration.’”