Opinion: COVID-19 reveals a labour weakness

COVID-19: Foreign workers a delicate issue as domestic unemployment soars

Glacier FarmMedia – A weak spot in Canada’s food system is being revealed by COVID-19.

Despite the federal government allowing temporary foreign workers into the country, there are still concerns not enough will be able to reach Canada in time.

Whole sections of foreign bureaucracies are closed, including visa offices in some countries, making it difficult for people to obtain the required paperwork.

Efforts to charter planes to bring in workers have been marginally successful, but the number of workers arriving in Canada is still not keeping pace with the need on farms – particularly within the horticulture sector.

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Then there is the nagging fact that roughly 60,000 foreign workers who do help on farms each year are not enough to fill all the available positions. Pre-COVID-19, agriculture labour was already a major issue.

According to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC), chronic labour shortages mean producers have had to hire more and more foreign labour – but doing so still left the sector with more than 16,000 available positions in recent years. There is no immediate technological solution to solve the labour issue, either.

Events of the past few weeks demonstrate just how delicate relying on foreign labour can be.

As spring settles in, the long-standing challenge of labour in agriculture could be exposed in an unprecedented way to Canadians.

Already there is evidence of some Canadians taking note. When concerns were brought up by producers about being able to access foreign labour in the midst of a pandemic, there were calls from kitchen tables and corners of the Internet to hire more Canadians.

It’s a fair point, given unemployment has skyrocketed as more and more businesses take measures to reduce costs. Students no longer attending classes could find worse ways to spend their time than working on a farm.

The delicacy around the issue of advocating for the continued flow of labourers from other countries to Canada, at the same time many Canadians look for work, is not lost on leaders.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has been deliberate in stating there will be jobs for Canadians wanting to work on farms, a sentiment that has been repeated countless times.

In a prepared statement she noted the “vital importance” of foreign workers to the Canadian economy, and their role in ensuring food safety and security for Canadians and the success of food producers. But she was also careful to say “there will always be jobs available for Canadians who wish to work on farms and at food processing plants,” in the same March 20 release.

However employing Canadians in these positions opens the door to new challenges.

The workers brought to Canada each year from other countries are generally trained well, willing to do the difficult work and have experience doing it – sometimes for little more than minimum wage. They also aren’t likely to quit if they don’t immediately favour the work or find it strenuous. Home is far away and the money is needed.

Domestically sourced labour largely lacks the same training, but are still potentially in a position to demand a higher wage. If producers are desperate for labour, and the only available labour asks for more money, market forces dictate producers will be forced to pay more.

Those higher costs will lead to lower profits for Canadian producers, and risks putting some of them out of business.

While producers, especially in horticulture, can try and pass along higher costs in regional or local markets, big buyers might look further afield for cheaper products.

That would mean consumers would have to prepare for higher costs of some products, or start getting used to seeing products normally sourced in Canada coming from somewhere else.

D.C. Fraser is Glacier FarmMedia’s Ottawa correspondent. The views expressed here are his own.

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D.C. Fraser

D.C. Fraser is Glacier FarmMedia’s Ottawa-based reporter. Growing up mostly in Alberta, Fraser also lived in Saskatchewan for ten years where he covered politics, including a stint teaching at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism. He is an avid fan of the outdoors and a pretty good beer league hockey player. His passion for agriculture and agri-food policy comes naturally: Six consecutive generations of his family have worked in the industry.

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