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Canada’s agriculture sector needs help – and foreign workers are part of the solution

The agriculture sector is in the midst of an acute labour crisis. For Canada’s cattle feeders, temporary foreign workers are a lifeline when they can’t fill vital positions with Canadian candidates. The Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association (ACFA) is working hard to ensure feedlots have access to skilled labour when Canadians cannot be found. 

In spite of high vacancies in the cattle feeding sector, it’s becomingly increasingly difficult to access temporary foreign workers – applying to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) has been a convoluted and time-consuming process since changes were made in 2014.

How applications are made

Feedlot owners use the TFWP’s Agricultural Stream to access workers for year-round, permanent jobs. The current program attempts to fit a variety of industries and sectors into a one-size-fits-all design and does not recognize that a feedlot’s need for year-round, permanent employees differs greatly from seasonal farming requirements. 

In a recent Temporary Foreign Worker Program Primary Ag Review, cattle feeders provided their feedback on the program, with suggestions for improvements. The feedback revealed some common trends and serious frustrations:

  • Paperwork timelines: Bringing foreign workers in under the TFWP Agricultural Stream takes six months or longer for processing of paperwork, including a Service Canada Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) and the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Work Permit. This is too long for feedlot employers needing to fill vacancies to care for and feed live cattle. 
  • Housing: To qualify for the TFWP, feedlot employers must provide subsidized accommodation and a positive housing inspection. Most feedlots do not have on-site accommodation so local housing is found for workers. Employers must rent and furnish accommodation before applying — creating a months-long financial burden that feedlot owners must endure with no guarantee of a successful application. Differences between year-round and seasonal accommodation are not currently recognized and no consideration is being given to the unique needs of year-round feedlot workers.
  • National Commodity List (NCL): To apply under the Agricultural Stream, the feedlot operator must select one commodity, or production stream, per application. Workers brought in under the program are then only allowed to work within that one commodity. The rule doesn’t realistically fit with feedlot operations, where workers typically have responsibilities that fall under two or more of these commodities. LMIAs are being refused for this reason. 
  • Changing requirements: Job postings must reference the federally regulated wage rate. When the wage rates are changed, notification is not provided so if the wrong rate is advertised, then LMIA applications are often declined multiple times, at no fault of the feedlot employer. Endless back and forth follow-up with Service Canada can result in the loss of potential candidates because feedlots are unable to indicate to these workers when approval will actually, if ever, take place.
  • A disconnect between federal and provincial rules: Provincial frameworks often don’t align with federal frameworks. In some provinces, formal paperwork has to be submitted to the province in order to begin the TFW application process. When the TFW application ends up being a long, drawn-out process, the provincial paperwork can actually expire, leaving the feedlot to start the entire process over again.
  • Immigration access restrictions for feedlot workers: Under Canada’s merit-based immigration system it is very difficult for feedlot operators and processing plants to keep highly skilled workers in the country – even when they have vital experience and on-the-job training. Federal and provincial governments must recognize farm and food workers as important and prioritize them for immigration.

ACFA works with the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council and the Agriculture and Agri-Food Labour Task Force to research and bring these issues forward. It is crucial that the uniqueness of feedlot operations is taken into consideration and that blanket requirements are removed from the program. 

In a recent post we wrote about the Alberta Immigration Nominee program, whereby businesses can apply for permanent resident status for their temporary foreign workers. But changes to that program could also make it harder for feedlot operators to keep certain highly skilled workers in the country.

Will immigration program changes help the agriculture labour crisis?

Photo Credit: GrainsWest magazine
Photographer: Bryce Meyer

 

On the surface, it appears that proposed changes to the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program (AINP) may help alleviate the chronic labour crisis currently affecting our agriculture sector. However, on closer inspection, some of the changes will actually prevent feedlots from nominating certain highly skilled foreign workers.

The good…

The AINP allows foreign nationals to apply for permanent residency while they work in Canada under a temporary foreign worker permit. The program is not new, but until now, applicants have had to select from multiple streams and sub-categories under which eligibility was assessed. The proposed changes, which take effect on January 2, 2018, will simplify the application process and standardize eligibility criteria, making it simpler for applicants and streamlining the review process.

Of particular note, the new AINP will allow applicants from all skill levels to apply. Up until now, lower-skilled workers (such as feedlot labourers) have not had an option to apply for permanent residency in Canada. As of January 2, they will be eligible to apply under the AINP as long as they meet work experience, education, income and language requirements, among other things.

The bad & the ugly…

The federal government’s Express Entry program has grown increasingly more restrictive, forcing many skilled feedlot workers to look for alternative application streams. Further, the English language requirements of the program prevented many from applying. Luckily, the AINP has served as an option to workers who a) could not gain sufficient points under Express Entry due to their education, age, or a variety of other factors, and/or b) could not apply due to an inability to meet minimum language benchmarks.

As of January 2, all AINP applicants will need to provide proof that they have the equivalent of a Canadian High School Diploma. Further, they will need to pass an English language test. This will cover all skill levels; from pen riders to feed truck drivers or labourers, etc.

While it’s true that many feedlots employ highly skilled foreign workers with veterinary-related degrees and excellent English language skills, many more employ high-skilled workers who do not have high school diplomas or do not meet the language requirements. These workers often have decades of related work experience. Many could pass the speaking and listening portion of the exam, but cannot pass the reading/writing portions as they do not exercise these skills on a daily basis. Unfortunately, once the changes come into place these foreign workers will no longer have any option to pursue permanent resident status in Canada.

Why the agriculture sector needs foreign workers

For Canada’s agriculture sector, many factors have contributed to a labour shortage that makes it increasingly difficult for farmers to find help – factors such as harsh working conditions, the seasonality of the work and the steady flow of young people into urban areas.

According to ‘Agriculture 2025,’ the labour market information report from the Canadian Agriculture Human Resources Council, there were 59,200 more agricultural jobs than candidates in 2014. This labour gap is expected to rise to 113,800 – 27 per cent of jobs – by 2025. In other words, Canadian farmers cannot fill their jobs from the available pool of Canadian applicants.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program has been invaluable in helping alleviate the shortage. It allows employers to bring in foreign workers on a temporary basis to fill jobs that can’t be filled by Canadians. The AINP, on the other hand, allows those workers to apply for permanent residency while they are working in Canada on a temporary permit.

To learn more about the labour crisis, check out ’12 must-know facts about the agricultural labour shortage and why it matters to Canadians’.