The Alberta and Ontario governments hope to set up “land armies” of available domestic workers to deploy on their provinces’ farms, in the event that seasonal and temporary foreign workers are unavailable.
Both provinces this week announced they have set up online portals where residents can connect with farmers in need of workers.
Such jobs are generally filled each year by temporary foreign workers, but the Alberta government noted Thursday that with travel restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “typical users of this program are concerned about the availability of foreign workers.”
Furthermore, as per new Statistics Canada data released Thursday, the number of employed people across Canada dropped by 1.011 million in March, due mainly to COVID-19-related layoffs, creating Canada’s lowest employment rate since April 1997.
All provinces reported declines, with Ontario employment down by 403,000 or 5.3 per cent, and Alberta employment down 117,000 or five per cent. Declines in British Columbia and Quebec were also among the largest, at 132,000 and 264,000 respectively.
The Ontario web page, launched Saturday, is billed as a way to fill positions in the agri-food sector “in order to ensure grocery store shelves remain full and families have food on the table during the COVID-19 outbreak.”
The online tool is expected to “make it easier to match people to essential jobs and training resources throughout the provincial food supply chain,” the province said.
“Right now, there are important jobs that need to be filled across the food supply chain and we are looking for individuals who embody the Ontario spirit to step up and provide an essential service,” Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman said in a release.
Alberta’s Agriculture Job Connector site, launched Thursday, is billed as a site for agriculture and food employers and workers to access hiring, job search and farm safety resources.
“Agriculture employers are encouraged to post available jobs on the connector so the positions can be filled by hard-working Albertans who will help keep the food supply chain operational,” the province said.
“There is definitely a greater appreciation for Alberta’s agriculture sector, and this new website will help Albertans find an exciting new job in this essential service,” provincial Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen said in Thursday’s release.
In its release, the Alberta government referred to the creation of a domestic “land army,” as proposed last month by farm groups in the U.K., where COVID-19-related travel restrictions and the potential for illness threaten to curb the availability of foreign seasonal labourers.
“This website will help connect an Albertan ‘land army’ of non-traditional agriculture workers enter a new and important labour market,” the province said.
Politicians at the federal level are also pressing for incentives to get available Canadians to take up work in the farming, agrifood and seafood processing sectors.
A group of 22 senators signed onto a letter Monday to federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Employment and Workforce Development Minister Carla Qualtrough, calling for such incentives.
“It is unlikely that all of the nearly 60,000 foreign workers on which farmers and processors depended will arrive in Canada to plant our crops and process food from the land or sea,” P.E.I. Senator Diane Griffin, a former Senate ag committee chair, said in a release.
Furthermore, Griffin said, an ag committee study found that in 2017, the average job vacancy rate in the agriculture sector varied between 4.5 and 6.3 per cent, while the average across all Canadian industries was 2.8 per cent, “therefore, our food sector was already short-staffed.”
The senators writing Monday proposed that Canadians and permanent residents, if they take up agricultural positions commonly filled by temporary and seasonal foreign workers, would be able to receive the federal Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) while keeping on-farm earnings.
Alternately, they wrote, such workers should be allowed to receive employment insurance benefits without having on-farm earnings clawed back — or, if the worker doesn’t qualify for EI or CERB, he or she should receive a grant equivalent to the CERB. They also asked that the government waive the Guaranteed Income Supplement clawback for on-farm income.
The senators also called for job protection for CERB-eligible workers who have been laid off from their previous jobs, allowing them to claim the benefit, “retain their connection with their current employer so that they have a job to return to post-crisis, and work in agriculture in the interim.”
They also called for the federal government to pay for accommodations at “nearby hotels or motels” for workers who would usually reside in on-farm communal living arrangements, “thereby ensuring that accommodations comply with provincial health and emergency measures.” — Glacier FarmMedia Network