The global pandemic highlights ongoing labour shortages in the agricultural sector and the importance of migrant workers in Canada’s food supply chain. The ever-evolving COVID-19 situation has not left one industry untouched as we adjust our daily routines and society adopts safety protocols to keep people safe.
While the rest of the world hit pause for a few months, agri-food workers continued to produce food and stock grocers’ shelves. Farmers across the country have continued to cultivate crops and care for livestock and poultry to keep food flowing through the supply chain.
COVID-19 has created new challenges for farmers and has exacerbated an already outstanding issue: labour shortages in Canada’s agricultural sector.
In 2017, on-farm agriculture had the highest job vacancy rate of any industry at 5.4 per cent. Producers lost $2.9 billion or 4.7 per cent of the industry’s totally value in sales, and the labour gap at the time was 63,000 vacant jobs, which could soar to 123,000 vacant positions in seven years, a Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) report said.
Canadians make up 83 per cent of the country’s workforce in the ag industry and international ag workers represent the remaining 17 per cent, the report said. In 2017, 47 per cent of farm owners could not find enough workers to help in their operations. This labour shortage leads to stress, production delays and the inability to invest in farm upgrades. In addition, 34 per cent of employers reported that no Canadian citizens applied for jobs on their farms.
But why does the agriculture industry face such significant labour shortages?
Farmers in each commodity area, such as dairy, swine, poultry, horticulture and aquaculture are confronted with unique challenges and opportunities to recruit and retain skilled workers.
For example, the dairy sector offers year-round employment, but some farmers struggle to find skilled workers with the experience and attitude required to be a successful animal caretaker.
In the horticultural sector, workers must be willing to commit to variable hours, physically intensive tasks and spending most of each day outside.
“In the fruit and vegetable industry, positions are available for up to eight months,” Ken Forth said. “The average stay is 24 weeks.”
Forth is the president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, which administers the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program in Ontario. He is also a broccoli farmer in Flamborough, Ont.
The nature of this kind of work makes it hard for farmers to recruit people who want stable incomes throughout the entire year.
Indeed, farming involves “hard physical labour, and most Canadians are not accustomed to that lifestyle,” said Sylvain Charlebois, the senior director of Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S.
As a result, the horticultural sector relies heavily on foreign labour. In 2017, 43 per cent of the Canadian fruit and vegetable production workforce was foreign workers at the seasonal peak, CAHRC’s website said. Migrant workers help fill the labour gap and ensure Canadians have a wide range of food choices at grocery stores.
Essential temporary foreign workers
The essential roles that temporary foreign workers (TFWs) have in mitigating labour shortages in Canada’s agricultural sector cannot be emphasized enough.
“The seasonal agriculture worker program has been around for 54 years,” Forth said. “I have been in the program for 50 years. The program changes the landscape in Ontario, so that we can produce more than one crop. It causes a great deal of local financial business” and stimulates economies abroad.
Migrant workers often send their Canadian wages home to help their families.
“In Jamaica, citizens need to pay for high school. So, if you have more than one child, you need to decide who is going to school and who is not,” Forth said.
“People who have worked for me have children with university degrees. Most of their money is earmarked for education.”
Kit Andres also emphasized the significance of the income TFWs earn in Canada.
The workers’ paycheques “help them build houses for their families and establish other infrastructure in their communities, such as schools and libraries. This income helps them feed their families and neighbours, and pay medical bills,” she said.
“This year, when some workers were delayed, or in some cases, denied entry to Canada, it meant that their children were going hungry and life-saving medication was inaccessible. Some workers’ families were evicted from their homes.”
As a result, “workers are calling for permanent immigration status, so that they will be free from this cycle and are better able to protect themselves from these situations in the future,” Andres added.
Andres is the migrant farm worker organizer for Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC). MWAC is Canada’s largest coalition of self-organized groups of migrant workers, with the support of grassroots organizations, unions, faith groups, activists and researchers that have come together to fight for justice and dignity for migrant workers, the organization’s website said. MWAC is based in Toronto, but Andres works with farmers and farmworkers in the Niagara region.
TFWs “are essential and if they cannot come to Canada, it is going to be a big problem,” Forth added.
Because of their immense contributions to Canadian farms and the food supply chain, farmers ensure the safety of TFWs and all other workers. Producers provide their employees with personal protective equipment, follow health guidelines, and maintain small family pods.
TFWs “have been around for a long time and are very much appreciated by farming communities across the country,” Charlebois said in an interview with Farmwork to Feed Canada.
“Many people are part of families now. And they are hard to replace. I think it is critical that the industry accommodates workers coming into Canada.”
To achieve greater TFW protection and support, MWAC has a simple message for the federal government.
“We need large-scale changes and radical immigration reform for farm workers as well as workers employed in fruit, vegetable and meat processing plants, transport truck drivers, and grocery store and restaurant workers,” Andres said.
“There are migrant workers” throughout the entire food value chain “and they sustain our communities and our economy. They are our co-workers, classmates, neighbours, friends and family. They all deserve equal rights and that is only possible when we all have the same immigration status in this country,” she added.
Employment and Social Development Canada and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada administer the TFW program, so the responsibility of enacting improvements to workers’ financial and personal well-being “lie squarely with the federal government,” Andres said.
In Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent “throne speech, he mentioned that farm workers deserve full support. So, we are asking to see that sentiment through permanent immigration status for everyone with no exceptions,” she added.
Upon the announcement of a nation-wide lockdown due to COVID-19 earlier this year, Canadians flooded grocery stores – panic-buying exorbitant amounts of toilet paper, canned goods, and baking supplies in fear of product shortages and higher prices.
However, the concern of rising food costs has been on the minds of Canadians for at least the last four years, a 2019 report said from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity’s (CCFI’s) public trust research.
CCFI is a national charity that helps Canada’s food system earn trust by coordinating research, resources, dialogue, and training.
The organization’s findings from last year showed that 64 per cent of Canadians ranked the rising cost of food as their top concern. In a close second, 62 per cent of Canadians expressed concern of keeping healthy food affordable. The other three areas of concern included rising health-care costs, rising energy costs and the safety of food imported from outside of Canada.
TFWs help provide the wide variety of food that Canadians consume year-round. However, some operations, such as horticultural farms, may not be able to continue production without the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
“I’m not sure that producers could maintain the same level of productivity without foreign workers,” Robert Falconer said.
He’s a researcher at the University of Calgary School of Public Policy in the social policy and health research division, specializing in immigration and refugee related issues.
If growers do not have the help they need to plant, maintain, and harvest crops during the growing season, then they cannot provide fresh and affordable produce.
“To offset the loss of foreign workers, farmers could make capital investments to increase the efficiency of remaining workers through various technological developments,” Falconer said. But this transition towards greater industrialization of farms would require financial support from provincial and federal governments, he added.
Forth sees a much more dire situation if the TFW program ceases operations.
“Fruit and vegetable farms cannot function without this program, period,” Forth said. “It costs millions of dollars to plant crops – between $2,000 and $5,000 per acre.” Farmers will not purchase seed and other inputs, such as fertilizer and pest protection products, if they are not guaranteed to at least break even on their initial investments, he added.
While this situation continues to evolve and farmers grapple with the ripple effects of COVID-19 and labour shortages in the agricultural sector, what can Canadian consumers expect to see in their local grocers in the coming months?
“There hasn’t been a uniform price increase across the board, but we are starting to see increases in certain sectors. The biggest (increases) so far have been in meat (products) such as pork and beef,” Falconer said. These items are priced 10 per cent higher compared to last year.
Fruit and vegetable prices will likely rise in the coming months, he said.
“Usually we see the prices of these items … drop in the summer months because we have higher local supplies from farmers. The prices have not gone up yet, but they (did not) drop like they usually do. I speculate this (situation) is due to production cuts as a result of fewer TFWs,” Falconer added.
“I estimate an increase of between five and 10 per cent. This percentage is what we have seen in meat and eggs, so I think that range is what we will see (in other products) in the coming months.”
Charlebois encourages consumers to remain calm in grocery stores and refrain from panic buying products.
“Trust the food supply chain,” he said.
“Food has continued to flow through supply chains and grocery store shelves have remained full, for the most part, but that comes at a cost.” As a result of the pandemic, food industry costs have increased, including cleaning, production, and distribution.
“So, food prices will continue to go up” and these costs will be passed onto the consumer, Charlebois said.