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Meat industry needs outside help urgently

The shortage of labour is becoming critical for processors

workers cutting beef at a meat-packing plant

Labour shortages in Canada’s meat sector are cutting into profitability and resulting in more livestock being sent south for processing, James Law, executive director of the Canadian Meat Council told the Senate agriculture committee last month.

“The greatest threat to the future of Canada’s livestock and meat sector at the moment is the severe shortage of butchers and meat cutters to work in our industry,” Laws said.

While companies have tried to recruit Canadians for the well-paying, full-time jobs including job training, they also need access to foreign workers to supplement the domestic workforce, he said.

“The best means to achieve this outcome is for butchers and meat cutters to be eligible for the new so‑called express entry program that Immigration Canada is putting in place next January.”

Laws said the Canadian meat industry currently has 500 unfilled jobs in meat cutting.

The Maple Leaf Foods facility in Brandon is “being challenged with being able to maintain two shifts because of a lack of workers,” Laws said. “Structurally, they need more workers to maintain best efficiencies to compete against the Americans, who can operate world‑class‑size facilities at high capacity.”

Changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker program made earlier this year by the federal government took the meat industry by surprise because they made it much harder for companies to attract skilled foreign workers when domestic labour wasn’t available.

On average, the labour shortages were forcing Canadian plants to work at 77 per cent of their capacity, which hurt their competitiveness with U.S. plants that have lower wages and can ship freely into Canada.

Labour shortages also worry the country’s hog producers who have weathered a long-term bout of low prices and are looking forward to increased exports, says Bill Wymenga, vice‑chairman of the Canadian Pork Council and a hog farmer from Lambton, Ont.

“Our growing concern is labour availability for Canadian slaughter plants,” he said. Low hog prices and high feed costs have created “a smaller but highly competitive hog sector, and we must not lose sight of our industry’s long‑term interests.”

New trade agreements are of little value when companies cannot hire the workers needed to prepare products for export, he added. “The world economy will continue to evolve and we cannot afford to overlook or suspend any efforts that can improve our market access or place our industry at a competitive disadvantage.”

More than two-thirds of hogs raised in Canada are exported either as live hogs or pork products, he said. Increasing exports is vital to hog producers and that requires co-operation between government and industry at all levels.

The meat industry is the largest component of this country’s food-processing sector, employing over 65,000 workers with annual sales of $24.1 billion.

Laws says the meat industry should benefit from a side agreement to the Canada-Europe trade deal that says the two sides will treat each other’s meat inspection systems and meat-processing technologies as equivalent. “Japan, the United States, Mexico, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Colombia and dozens of other countries already accept our meat inspection system and processes of sanitation and pathogen control as safe and based on sound science. So should the Europeans.”

As important as new markets are for exporters, so is the removal of cumbersome technical regulations and requirements, he said.

Wymenga said the hog industry is also struggling with the need to replace aging infrastructure after years of poor returns. “Federal programs such as advanced payments programs help, but it will not be enough to help with the construction or improvement of buildings. We have an aging infrastructure.”

The council is looking at other federal programs that hog farmers could tap into especially the Canadian Agriculture Loans Act. “Our building structures are aging and our industry is in need of significant reinvestment to ensure continued efficiencies.”

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