Worker rules stifle agri-food, Eichler tells Senate committee

The new provincial agriculture minister was speaking to the Senate agriculture committee

Manitoba’s new agriculture minister says federal rules on temporary and seasonal workers are harming the agri-food sector.

Ralph Eichler told the Senate agriculture committee there’s a shortage of skilled labour and regulatory changes are at least partially causing that.

“Changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program have had significant impacts on the ability of Manitoba agriculture and agri-food employers to meet their labour market needs,” Eichler said.

Other provincial governments and many industry groups and businesses have echoed similar concerns in recent months, and Eichler characterized the changes to the TFWP in recent years as a “barrier to success and growth.”

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workers cutting beef at a meat-packing plant

“It has hampered the ability to grow our meat-processing industry,” Eichler said. “Our major pork processors, Maple Leaf and HyLife, have had their capacity and growth severely diminished and will continue at such a constant unless we allow them access to labour that cannot be found locally.”

The federal government, which is currently reviewing the program, should allow regional flexibility based on local labour market needs, he said.

“Our producers have voiced concern about new stricter border input control measures and enforcement of the rules that are affecting returns from the marketplace,” Eichler said.

New trade agreements are offering potential new export opportunities, he noted, but that also means more competition for the domestic market, which translates into a need to keep domestic producers competitive.

Other priorities for the new Manitoba government include encouraging innovation and increased collaboration, including joining the New West Partnership to eliminate interprovincial trade barriers and supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, and reduction of red tape, a signature election promise for the freshly elected Progressive Conservative government.

He noted that agriculture generates $6 billion annually in cash receipts and that food processing represents about a quarter of all Manitoba manufactured goods every year.

“Growth in value-added processing and exports of commodities and food is necessary for economic growth and job creation,” he said.

Eichler had to cut short his presentation and it was completed by Dori Gingera-Beauchemin, the province’s deputy agriculture minister.

She told senators that Manitoba chicken farmers share the concerns of producers in other jurisdictions over the increase in spent fowl coming across the border and they expect Ottawa to take action to maintain border diligence and reduce competition.

She also said building consumer trust in the food industry is crucial, adding that the industry is coming to see it as one of the biggest issues it faces.

“Part of the challenge is that the game keeps changing,” she continued. “The requirements from the market keep changing. Every time there is an adjustment to market demand and the public’s expectation, the cost, of course, is borne by the producer in making those changes. Yet the producer wants to meet the expectations of the consumers. The producer wants to be able to provide that food and then have the consumer return respect for the food in ways of being able to pay for it.”

While producer and industry groups are leading a large collaborative effort to deal with the issue, governments can help bring all the parties into the discussion, she said.

“Whether we are working with our primary agriculture producers or on those who transform commodities into food products, or whether we are working with the retailers or restaurant and hotel trade, if the whole supply chain isn’t agreeing on the framework we have, we will lose continuously profitability as producers try to react to changing market demands,” she said.

“It has to be the whole system in order to be able to be effective and consistent and to be able to provide the trust that consumers are looking for.”

Consumers and farmers have shared interests, said Gingera-Beauchemin. Consumers want food they can trust and farmers want to provide that to them. The challenge is finding a durable standard both sides can agree to.

“It is now time for the system to agree on a framework that allows as much of the market demand to be satisfied by Canadian product,” she said. “For us to be able to ensure that Canadians as well as our global customers can trust our food is the next important space for the industry to play in. We have a framework that works. We are small enough and we have lots in common. Canada can set an example around the world in bringing that consensus together.”

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