A few years back I stumbled across the work of the late Barbara Tuchman, a historian who wrote bestselling books about everything from the events leading to the First World War to the folly of governments pursuing policies that were actually contrary to their own interests.
The book that initially captured my interest was A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.
It chronicled a particularly difficult period for European society that triggered a burst of change that in many ways is still reverberating. It was so traumatic that the events are collectively known as the “crisis of the late Middle Ages.”
At the time, the region was grappling with climate change — the Medieval Warm Period ended, and the first century of the Little Ice Age began. That brought with it the Great Famine of 1315-17.
Then just a few years later, from 1347-51 came the plague known as the Black Death.
In tandem, these two events are said to have reduced the population of Europe by ‘half or more,’ according to consensus estimates by historians.
The resulting hardships spurred a series of peasant movements, undermined the power of the Catholic Church, and began the end of the tenant farming/military conscription system that was feudalism.
The rising power of the lower classes resulted in higher wages and even saw farmland abandoned for generations for want of hands to work it.
This narrative has been much on my mind in recent days as I’ve pondered the fallout of our own — albeit much milder — modern plague.
While the lights have stayed on and food hasn’t run out, there have undeniably been many effects felt far and wide.
Anyone who’s tried to build anything recently can tell you all about the cost of lumber and the long wait times for building materials like windows and doors, for example.
And as we have reported in these pages, supply chain whiplash has played havoc with shipping container supplies and the ability to move certain products.
And certainly, we’ve seen a lot of talk about labour shortages. In some cases it’s being blamed on overly generous government programs. But as many observers point out, the roots of these labour shortages actually predate COVID.
The restaurant sector, for example, is amongst the hardest hit. Everywhere you look, it appears there’s a “help wanted” sign in the window. And I’ve read more media articles than I can count featuring one restaurateur or another complaining bitterly about the lack of labour.
And while, in the words of one restaurateur that I read recently, “something’s gotta give,” what most in that sector don’t want to see give is their one-sided work culture.
Such as? Employees have “open availability” schedules, in exchange for scant hours, no opportunity for full-time work, no benefits and too frequently little respect.
Another sector that’s struggled for years with labour and staffing issues is agriculture.
One tempting band-aid has long been the use of temporary foreign workers, where local employees can’t be found.
That’s worked, but it’s always been a risky play. That flow of workers only survives as long as the political will is there for it to continue. And it would seem there are early signs that is drying up.
A Reuters news service report from the U.K. notes that, that country is days away from a pig cull due to lack of butchers and meat packers.
And the Boris Johnson-led Conservative government has, surprisingly, been stubbornly refusing to expedite the arrival of offshore workers.
It argues businesses should invest in their workforce and improve pay and conditions.
Here in Canada, the issue isn’t just an anecdotal one. The data backs it up too. According to Statistics Canada, 4.1 per cent of jobs in Canada were vacant in March — the latest month data was available. That’s a full percentage point higher than at the start of the pandemic.
That means a business’s ability to recruit and maintain a qualified workforce is going to factor into its success like never before.
A big part of that is going to be paying competitive wages. In the end, it’s cold hard cash that pays rent and mortgages, buys shoes for the kids and puts food on the table.
Multiplying that challenge for the agriculture sector is the reality that many of the jobs in question are far from urban centres. In other sectors that would frequently mean remote pay, on/off work rotations and other attempts to make the job attractive to a workforce with other options.
There won’t be any easy solutions to this challenge, and many of the solutions will no doubt be as diverse as the workforce the sector needs to attract.
Without a robust plan, you could find yourself like the medieval lord, wondering where all the workers have gone.