Alberta’s tight labour market and the pending exodus of thousands of temporary workers from outside of Canada have set off a case of jitters in the agriculture and processing industries.
By late October, Alberta’s unemployment rate was sitting at 4.5 per cent, which generally means there was a job somewhere for pretty well anyone who wanted to work.
While the supply of workers is stronger in the Central and Eastern provinces, most job creation in Canada has been created in the West during the past 10 years, says Michael Burt, director of industrial and economic trends for the Conference Board of Canada.
Labour Summit in Red Deer on Oct. 30, Burt gave an overview of regional labour markets and the resulting trend to fill gaps by seeking workers from outside Canada’s borders.
“We’re going to have to continue to deal with labour shortages in Western Canada,” said Burt.
Stacked on that, the federal government has made some dramatic changes in the rules for its temporary foreign worker program while the first wave of people who arrived to work within that program are expected to head home in April.
The Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program, through which many farms have staffed their barns, is currently capped at 5,500 people per year and there is now a waiting list of two years.
Those facts are creating a vacuum in the labour pool with no clear solutions in sight.
Means of coping with labour shortages were among the key issues addressed at the Agriculture Labour Summit and at Alberta Pork’s annual general Meeting in Calgary a week later.
Participants in the Red Deer meeting identified a deep philosophical rift between farm-based employers and the federal government, widened somewhat by a comment from Howard Jones, senior development officer for the temporary foreign worker program at Service Canada in Edmonton.
Service Canada’s mandate is to “absolutely” protect jobs for Canadian workers, Jones said in answer to a question from the floor after giving his presentation.
Hog producer John Middel, who had asked the question in the first place, was incensed at the idea that the federal government is focusing resources on helping Canadian workers without giving similar consideration to the people trying to hire them.
“The message to this employer is clear and unequivocal: The government of Canada has no interest in helping fill vacant jobs,” Middel wrote afterward in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper.
Speaking to a labour resolution passed presented by producer Albert Neufeld during the Alberta Pork meeting, Middel said he learned from the labour summit in Red Deer that the constant frustration of dealing with labour runs across the industry.
Particularly troublesome is the length of time needed to apply for workers, the continually shifting set of rules and the high number of applications rejected because of small details missed in the paperwork or because there was a change in rules at some point between the date of the application and the date it was processed.
“I think we need to do more to deal with this labour situation, because it is something that is not going away,” said Middel.
Neufeld’s resolution, passed unanimously, addressed the need to cut through reels of red tape in applying for foreign workers by having Alberta Pork act as an agent on a user-pay basis.
Neufeld said that, regardless of what they are called, the programs administered by Service Canada have been designed to be as cumbersome as possible.
“Individuals like myself, that don’t have the time or the labourers or the human resource workers to help us with this process, it sure would be nice if I could call Alberta Pork and say: ‘I’ve lost an employee, I’ve done some local advertising in my local paper, would you guys take care of the advertising to make sure the wording is done right, the hourly rate is done right for my area . . . so that hopefully we have a better chance to get an LMO (labour market opinion) done correctly.’” Neufeld said expertise provided by Alberta Pork could significantly shorten the length of time it takes to recruit and hire new workers.
Former meat cutter Ric McIver, Alberta’s minister of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour, said in his address to the Labour Summit that he is pressing the federal government for some key changes in the temporary foreign worker program and is hopeful of an announcement.
McIver and Spruce Grove-St. Alberta MLA Doug Horner, a senior adviser to Premier Jim Prentice, met in Ottawa during October with federal ministers and staff responsible for trade and labour.
An express entry program is under review and there has been some suggestion of other changes, but the Alberta government’s level of success during those meetings will not be known until those changes are announced, said McIver, MLA for Calgary-Hays.
“The federal government has indicated with the temporary foreign worker program that they feel . . . that they have a lot of temporary workers in Alberta doing permanent jobs,” he said.
Alberta’s numbers indicate 85,000 temporary foreign workers were employed within the province at the end, with a large number involved in agriculture and ag-related industry.
“If we don’t make some changes to the announced regulations, or if the federal government doesn’t, there are going to be thousands and thousands of them going home in 2015,” said McIver.
“In fairness to our federal counterparts, they set us up for possible success. We had a pretty open, pretty plain language discussion about the issue. They understand that it’s going to be a big problem . . . if we don’t have those jobs filled.”
Several things need to happen, including keeping foreign workers here longer or helping them become permanent residents and citizens, said McIver.
Senior staff at both levels of government are working together to get the details right and come up with a program that will work, he said.
“Alberta is a big contributor to Canada. The industry is important to Canada and I can assure you it is very important to Alberta,” said McIver.
“I don’t know how this is going to turn out yet, and if you’re a little unsettled, well, I am, too. What I can tell you is that I believe everybody who has a role in making the decisions is fully aware of how serious the labour situation is.”
He asked producers to keep the pressure on as well, including sharing their views and concerns with him.
Canada’s agricultural producers will be most effective if they lobby with a single voice, said Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council.
“This is something we knew was coming and here it is,” said MacDonald-Dewhirst.
Agriculture in the past has been focused mainly on innovation and production, with little attention paid to human resources until more recently, when farms grew bigger and employment issues grew along with them, she said.
The world of work in agriculture is not well researched or documented, so policy decisions are based on information that is not really solid, said MacDonald-Dewhirst.
Her group has collaborated with 11 different value chains to look for common concerns and find policy solutions for them.
“The number one issue at every single table was the labour issue,” she said.
“The labour task force was given one year to review the situation and come up with some solutions.”
The temporary foreign worker program is just one line of inquiry being explored by the task force, along with effects of an aging workforce and competition with the oil and gas industry for workers.
“The challenges are pervasive. We know the issues. The effects are being felt in all commodity areas.
“All meat processing plants today are running about with about five per cent vacancy. When you run a plant with inefficiencies to that extent, it’s a real cost. The viability of a plant comes into question,” said MacDonald-Dewhirst.
Some plants have already cut back in their operations and others are moving to the US, where labour costs are lower, she said.
Great concern has been expressed across the commodity groups about the announcements made in June regarding the temporary foreign worker program and the need for more clarity on that and the need to address the issues affecting agriculture, said MacDonald-Dewhirst.
“When we come to the table together as one collective voice, we come as a $100-billion industry. We say: ‘Your policy does not work for us.’ That has much more clout and much more influence than coming to the table separately,” she said.
Human resources specialist Cheryl Knight brought an oil and gas perspective to the Labour Summit, admitting that her industry routinely poaches workers off the farm and countering that with a suggestion that the two industries can complement each other in some respects because of their seasonal nature.
She advised producers to wean themselves off of temporary foreign workers and look to other sources to fill their needs.
“Connecting Canadians to jobs has to be number one, despite the fact that temporary foreign workers are critical to you,” said Knight.
“You cannot rely on temporary foreign workers to solve your labour problems . . . because it is not as changeable and manageable and controllable and flexible as your other levers. Look at your other levers for your labour market solutions,” she said.
Knight referred to those “other levers” as the segments of society that are under-represented in the labour pool, including youth, aboriginals and immigrants who have already settled in Canada.
“There are immigrants in Canada that are unemployed and underemployed. They are the most motivated, skilled, educated and flexible work force that we have in Canada. It is a critical and important and somewhat easier supply pool than the other under-represented groups,” she said.
She suggested targeting areas of high unemployment within Canada.
“Do your research and find out where those pockets of skills are.”
Knight joined MacDonald-Dewhirst in encouraging agricultural producers to work with their commodity groups and speak with one voice when making their case with policy makers.
“Ask your associations to help you understand the skills in the economy that are transferable to your sector. With oil and gas, we have looked at pulp and paper mills that are closing down, where people have no choice but to look for other work.”
Skills learned in the mills transfer quite readily to oil and gas, just as the many skills learned in farm work are equally useful in “the patch,” she said.
Alberta Pork Chairman Frank Novak, a senior manager at Sunhaven Farms, offered his company’s perspective on hiring and retaining temporary foreign workers.
Sunhaven’s group of farms employs 70 people altogether, of whom 44 come from other countries.
Of those 44, 13 are permanent residents and the rest are temporary foreign workers. There are 24 from the Philippines, six from Mexico, four Ukrainians, two each from Serbia and Hungary and one each from half a dozen other countries, said Novak.
Bringing people from all over the world to work together in Canada poses some of its own challenges, he said.
“People need to develop a sense of community if you have any hope of keeping them around. If you don’t help them find that sense of community, they will find it somewhere,” he said.
“People drift off toward the city because that’s where there are more people and they’re more likely to find people with their same background in the city and, the next thing you know, they’re more interested in being in the city and then they’re not at your farm anymore.”
Having more than one person from a particular country or cultural group helps keep people from feeling isolated.
“That cultural part is important to them in terms of feeling that they’ve actually got a life as opposed to just a job,” said Novak.  •
— By Brenda Kossowan