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Comment: Workers make Christmas happen

Our holiday season is filled with food, thanks for farm and food workers

It is the holiday season, a time to enjoy dinners with family and friends and time to be thankful and proud of our world-class Canadian food system, providing us with abundant, healthy, safe and affordable food.

Canadian farmers and processors, with the help of a skilled agricultural workforce, feed 37 million Canadians. We are also the fifth-largest agri-food exporter. Canadians can be proud of our Canadian farmers, processors and workers who are contributing $100 billion and close to seven per cent toward Canada’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Farmers understand our food relies on people: farm and food businesses and workers who plant, grow, harvest, prepare and package Canada’s delicious products. Unfortunately farmers and processors struggle to find enough workers.

Research conducted by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) shows a critical gap between the demand for workers and the supply of available workers. This gap has doubled in the last 10 years to approximately 60,000 workers. By 2025, the labour gap is expected to grow to 114,000 workers. The job vacancy rate for the industry is higher than any other industry in Canada, seven per cent.

This is resulting in $1.5 billion in lost sales each year. Processors in rural areas are also having critical shortages. This is in spite of vigorous recruitment efforts and wages being competitive. For example, farmers in Saskatchewan pay upwards of $25 an hour to have someone drive combine.

To address the labour shortage, the Agriculture and Agri-Food Labour Task Force (LTF) comprised of industry representatives from the entire value chain, including the seafood sector, has developed proposed solutions in the Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Workforce Action Plan (WAP) to address the critical labour shortage. This Canadian employment strategy, led by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) and supported by over 77 agriculture associations, makes two key overarching recommendations:

  • increase the supply of labour; and
  • improve the knowledge and skills of workers.

The Workforce Action Plan will better connect Canadian workers with the industry through a national jobs resource centre, a national career promotion initiative, increased training to improve the knowledge and skills of agriculture and agri-food workers, a diversity and inclusion initiative, commodity specific wage research, and many other concrete and achievable action items.

Farmers and processors hire Canadians first, but if Canadians are not available, the Agriculture and Agri-Food Labour Task Force (LTF), also proposes an Agriculture and Agri-Food Workforce Program. The program needs to allow ongoing access to seasonal workers and calls for fairness, allowing an immigration pathway to permanency for farm and food workers, along with common-sense fixes to programming that make sense for farmers, agricultural workers, and primary processors.

The Federal Government took its first step to fix the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) this December, by announcing “In order to prevent unnecessary hardship and instability for both workers and employers, the four-year cumulative duration rule (known as the “four-in, four-out” rule) will no longer apply to temporary foreign workers in Canada, effective immediately.”

Removing this rule was a longstanding recommendation of the LTF as it was creating a skills deficit for Canadian agricultural employers and it was also acting as a restrictive barrier for the pathway to permanency for farm and food workers. This one fix helps mixed farms, beekeepers, cow-calf operations, cattle feedlots, hog farms, apple growers, maple syrup producers, grain and seed farms, and many others.

The majority of the TFWP are agriculture workers so fixing issues like this makes good sense. In fact, Canada’s valued international agriculture workers make up 12 per cent of the primary agriculture workforce and they help to support 88 per cent of Canadian agriculture jobs.

Without this support, many Canadian agriculture jobs, up and down the value chain, would be in jeopardy. A functional Temporary Foreign Worker program is one that prioritizes hiring Canadians first, which allows access to international workers that in turn secures Canadian jobs; this benefits Canadian consumers and allows Canadian farmers to keep feeding the world.

While you enjoy your holiday traditions and treats, don’t forget to acknowledge the good work of farmers, processors and our farm and food workers. It’s their efforts that make it all so fulfilling.

Mark Wales and Mark Chambers are the co-chairs of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Labour Task Force.

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