foreign workers

Food processors request emergency access to foreign workers

Canadian food industry associations are calling on the federal government to create an “emergency” temporary foreign workers program to address the chronic labour shortages still being seen in the sector.

The Canadian Press reports that the group of 10 associations representing the food and beverage processing sector includes Food and Beverage Canada, the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council, and the Canadian Meat Council.

The association has asked the federal government to increase the existing cap on the number of temporary foreign workers an employer can operate with to 30 per cent. Most employers are forced to comply with a rate of just 10 per cent, although some exceptions have a ceiling of 20 per cent.

The group also wants faster foreign worker application processing times, new pathways to permanent residency for TFWs working in the sector, and a pilot program that would direct refugees to the food and beverage processing sector.

A dire shortfall

Food and Beverage Canada said the industry is currently using about 24,000 TFWs, or less than 10 per cent of the total workforce.

Kathleen Sullivan, chief executive of Food and Beverage Canada, said, per the Financial Post: “I can’t tell you the number of stories I’m hearing from companies who have their mothers, their spouses, their children now working in the plant. The situation is very dire.”

Job vacancies are at an all-time high in Canada, according to a December report from Statistics Canada. While the restaurant sector was one of the worst-affected sectors with a vacancy rate of 12.9 percent, food manufacturing was also heavily impacted, with a rate of six per cent.

According to the Financial Post, the latest wave of COVID-19 infections has exacerbated a chronic labour shortage in food manufacturing that reportedly encompasses around 15 to 20 per cent of total positions, due in part to an aging workforce.

McKinnon said that the labour shortage for food processors has got so bad that some plants are reporting job vacancy rates as high as 30 per cent.

An “urgent” need

Marie-France McKinnon, spokeswoman for the Canadian Meat Council, which represents the country’s federally registered meat-packing and processing plants, said: “We urgently need the government to help our food processors and implement the measures we are recommending. Our critical labour shortages impact the whole supply chain from producer to consumer.”

“There are definitely shifts and production lines impacted,” she added. “We are working diligently to ensure we can keep operations going . . . but the bigger issue remains a systemic labour shortage that is threatening food stability in our country.”

Some steps have already been taken.

An agreement this month saw the federal government and Quebec boost the cap on low-wage TFWs in the province to 20 per cent from 10 per cent in several sectors, including food manufacturing and hospitality.

But the coalition argues more needs to be done. It is pushing for an 18-month project to develop a strategy for addressing job vacancies in the sector, in partnership with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

“The situation is unsustainable, and whatever we’ve been doing hasn’t been working,” Sullivan said. “In the meantime, I don’t think as a country we can afford to have a food system that doesn’t have the right number of people working in it because that simply results in less food.”