Labour crisis looms in Canada’s agricultural sector
A Conference Board of Canada report warns that a large portion of Canadian farmland will lie fallow without a robust migrant farm worker program.
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With a growing demand for unskilled agricultural workers, a new study warns a large portion of Canadian farmland will lie fallow without a robust migrant farm worker program.
Labour shortages within the sector have already doubled over the past decade and are expected to double again by 2025, reaching 113,800 unfilled jobs, said the Conference Board of Canada study, to be released Thursday.
“A growing labour gap in agriculture is being driven by a combination of circumstances, including an aging workforce, large seasonal fluctuations in employment, the rural location of many operations, and negative perceptions about working in the sector,” said the study, Sowing the Seeds of Growth.
“Simply paying Canadians more to work in the sector or buying more machines may not be possible and will not eliminate the sector’s need for TFWs (temporary foreign workers).”
The report came on the eve of a soon-to-come announcement by Ottawa to overhaul its temporary foreign workers program.
Currently, migrant workers account for 12 per cent of Canada’s agricultural workforce, filling about three-quarters of the sector’s labour gap, said the study. Twenty years ago, only five per cent of the farm workers were brought in from other countries.
In 2015, the sector accounted for 58 per cent of the number of positive labour market impact assessments – a review by federal officials to ensure there’s a labour shortage and the hiring of the migrant workers will not take jobs away from Canadians.
At the seasonal peak, the sector needs about 100,000 or 30 per cent more workers than at seasonal lows.
Latest government data showed 177,704 migrant workers were issued work permits in 2014, including 45,281 agricultural workers and 41,002 lower-skilled workers, many of them on farm work.
Forty per cent of the farm operators in the Conference Board survey cited the physicality of work as a labour retention challenge. In 2015, farm workers put in an average of 44.8 hours per week, compared with an average of 35.9 hours for all sectors.
“Many farm operators reported that overtime, fatigue, and stress for existing workers was a major outcome of labour shortages. In other words, long hours appear to be both a result of and a contributor to the labour shortages being experienced in agriculture,” said the report.
The sector’s below-average pay poses another challenge, it noted. In 2015, farm workers made an average of $684 a week versus $923 for all sectors.
The competition for low-skilled farm workers has also gone global as both the Australian and American operators have actively recruited migrant workers. In Australia, the federal government has recently expanded its visa eligibility to include cattle, sheep, grain, and mixed product farms.
Farm operators cannot afford wage increases because prices for their products are generally set with a price ceiling that’s decided by regional or global markets, noted the report.
“Existing immigration programs, with their focus on university graduates, are not well suited to the needs of agriculture. With federal immigration policy geared toward higher skilled labour, there is limited facilitation for permanent residency for lower skilled occupation, even though agriculture has a critical need for these workers,” the study found.
“Even for agricultural producers keen on assisting interested TFWs in becoming permanent residents, hurdles including experience requirements, application fees, processing and waiting times, and the need for supporting documents remain. As well, only higher-skilled positions. . . are eligible.”
In addition to easier access to permanent residency for migrant farm workers, the study recommends a “trusted-employer” program to speed up the process to bring in migrant workers and multiple entry visas to allow the group greater mobility.
“The key driver of this change has been globalization, as many of these jobs have migrated to where labour costs are lower. In these other industries, business owners were able to move the machinery and plant needed to create these goods to where the workers were,” said the report.
“Farm operators cannot do this; the land and water available for agricultural production are in Canada, not elsewhere, and cannot be moved.”