Years back, I sat in a first-year university economics class where the guest lecturer insisted that the concept of a ‘labour shortage’ didn’t really exist in a market economy.
You had, he explained, a few different options, including two major ones. You could invest in technology that improved productivity. Or you could sweeten your offer to attract more workers, either through higher wages or better working conditions.
If you couldn’t do either, the problem wasn’t really the labour market, he explained. It was that you had a non-viable business.
You can’t say Canada’s agriculture and food sector is a non-viable business. A cursory search found Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada touting the sector’s $143-billion contribution to the national bottom line, amounting to 7.4 per cent of GDP, and the fact it created one in eight jobs in the nation.
Yet it has struggled to attract employees. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture notes that in 2018 there were 63,000 positions open on Canadian farms, projected to rise to 123,000 by 2029.
It also noted that many positions are filled by temporary foreign workers (TFWs) despite “… robust advertising and hiring efforts by Canadian farmers.”
The problem extends well beyond the farm level, however, as Geralyn Wichers reports in our June 24 issue. She cites reports that show food processors in general — and meat packers in particular — are struggling to find willing workers. It’s a global issue.
Those experts all conceded that a big part of the problem was the sector’s less than sterling reputation with workers.
It’s seen as a place with long hours, irregular shifts, uncreative work and little chance for advancement or fulfilment.
Those perceptions are only magnified at the farm level, where geographic isolation, even longer hours and short seasonal employment can be added into the mix.
It would seem that the TFW program is a perfect fit for those challenges on the farm. It allows ambitious workers from developing nations to come here, earn wages significantly higher than those available at home, then return to their friends and families to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle.
And for many of those employees that’s exactly how it works out. TFWs have become a mainstay in the horticulture, greenhouse and beekeeping sectors across the country and here in Manitoba.
The vast majority of them are well treated by ethical employers, and they vote with their labour every year, by returning to the same operations.
But another story by Geralyn Wichers, in the Co-operator, also points out it’s not all sunshine and roses.
There is, unfortunately, a handful of bad apples in any large group of people.
As she reports, the concern this time is that some employers of TFWs in Manitoba are not supporting their employees’ efforts to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The problem is worrisome enough that Dr. Joss Reimer, the province’s medical lead on the vaccine rollout, took time to address these concerns in a June 16 news conference.
In both English and Spanish, she spoke directly to workers, noting “… I want this to be very clear, that you don’t need the permission or the support of your boss to get the vaccine.”
Again, there are plenty of ethical actions occurring on the vaccination front. Worth noting are the efforts of the Manitoba Beekeepers Association, which has proactively contacted its members to communicate information to employers about getting employees vaccinated.
Chair Ian Steppler also credited the work of a provincial staff member who has provided members with information about COVID.
He said that it was in the employer’s own best interests to ensure a healthy workforce, noting “… this can literally shut down an operation for two weeks.”
Other agriculture sectors here and across the country that rely heavily on TFWs should follow suit, if they’re not already.
But it might also be time to consider a more robust self-policing approach to weed out the bad actors, given just how reliant these industries are on foreign labour.
That labour only flows across borders because the Canadian government and the government of the employees allow it.
Every negative headline means more scrutiny, less public support, and a higher likelihood that one or both governments might be inclined to step in with restrictions or onerous regulatory burdens, lest they suffer at the ballot box.
And if that happens, these employers will be left with a couple of unpalatable options, as per the aforementioned guest lecturer.
They can start writing some pretty big paycheques. Or they can decide that what they have is an unviable business.