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The job ahead

Canada faces its own farm labour gap, and it’s going to get much worse

Canada’s farmers are already losing $1.5 billion, simply because they can’t find the employees needed for 
the work.

A black binder sits on the table next to the job board at Aylmer Community Services. Glued to its cover is a stock photo of two hands holding a tiny seedling. Red letters proclaim its title: Agricultural and Farming Jobs. 

In the steady stream of job seekers, however, few visitors to the jailhouse-turned-community service centre in this busy Ontario town stop to flip through its pages.

“I hear it all the time,” says employment counsellor Susan Loewen. “People come in and tell me they don’t want to work on a farm… they say, well, I want to work inside, I don’t want to work Sundays or weekends. They want something year-round.”

It’s a sentiment she can sympathize with.

The oldest child in a large family, Loewen immigrated to southwestern Ontario from a farming community in Mexico at age six. By age 12 she was working alongside her parents, mostly on tobacco farms.

“But when I was 17, maybe even a bit before that, I did realize that, okay, there are other opportunities out there for me,” she says. “Farming is labour intensive, the hours are long, you work outside in the rain, the cold and all of that kind of stuff, so when I got my licence I looked into factory work, I wanted something more stable.”

Her story is far from unique.

Farmers and processors across Canada are struggling to fill jobs as more Canadians seek employment outside agriculture. The result has been a stifling of farm growth, increased reliance on foreign workers, and $1.5 billion in lost revenue each year.

“It’s a really big challenge that isn’t going away,” says Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director at the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, noting that the vacancy rate on farms is closing in on 10 per cent. “The national average for other industries is only 1.8 per cent, so the industry is really being constrained and challenged by its inability to fill those vacant positions.”

A 2016 report published by the council warns the situation will only get worse. The organization predicts the agricultural labour gap will double by the year 2025, leaving an estimated 113,800 positions unfilled by the Canadian ag labour market.

But not all industries and regions will be equally impacted. The council’s report notes Ontario and Alberta will see their labour gaps grow fastest, while beef, grain and oilseed producers will see the largest labour gap growth as emerging markets drive demand for protein and new products.

Some farmers are already changing the commodities they produce to cope with labour shortfalls.

“That was sort of the anecdotal evidence we found when we did that research,” says Debra Hauer, manager of labour market intelligence for the council. “One producer in Alberta told us he’d prefer to be a beef producer, but he couldn’t do that, so he went to grains instead. Horticulture producers who have difficulty finding people to plant and harvest their produce are going to cash crops.”

Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, has also noticed that producers who struggle to find suitable workers are shifting away from crops requiring intensive manual labour.

For many workers, the biggest challenge is transportation. It doesn’t matter what the job pays if you can’t get to it. photo: Pfennings Organic Vegetables (ON)

“You quite often see it with owners of farms that are getting older… rather than constantly struggling to find the labour they need, they will try and shift production,” says the Ontario cow-calf producer. “On the other side of it, what you have with younger farm owners is lost opportunity. They could expand their farms a lot more if they had the labour force to do it, but they don’t.”

In its last budget, the federal government set a target of $75 billion in agricultural sales by 2025, something Bonnett says won’t be possible unless labour shortages in both primary agricultural production and processing are addressed. That means taking a hard look at the complex reasons why Canadians aren’t choosing farm work.

The council’s study identified seasonality as a major deterrent for would-be farm labourers. Of the employers surveyed, 42 per cent identified seasonality “as being a key challenge” in recruiting and retaining employees. Excessively long work hours during seasonal peaks was identified by 24 per cent of respondents as a major factor in employee retention, while the unpredictability of working hours was seen as a deterrent for job seekers by about 35 per cent of employers.

The physicality of farm labour was also seen as a big drawback, with more than 40 per cent of job seekers identifying it as a retention issue.

Such factors hurt, especially when combined with agricultural jobs offering minimum wage compensation.

“When you look at the hours you put in, the physical nature of the work — which is often outside — I think that sometimes people feel they are not getting paid what they should be for that amount of physical labour,” says Loewen. “Many of these jobs, unfortunately, pay minimum wage.”

According to the Conference Board of Canada, farm workers pulled in an average of $648 a week in 2015. The weekly average for all other sectors was $923.

However, the same report also indicates farmers have trouble increasing wages because their profits are often constrained by globally or regionally set commodity prices. Still, it’s important to note not all agricultural jobs are seasonal and not all on-farm compensation begins at minimum wage.

According to Statistics Canada, general farm labourers could expect a salary of about $25,000 per year in 2011, while specialized livestock workers earned close to $35,000 that same year. Horticultural managers made an average salary just north of $50,000 in 2011, while harvest labourers could expect to earn less than $15,000.

The right employee on the right farm can lead to long-term, satisfying employment. But few high school graduates ever hear that agriculture is an option for them. photo: Alberta Dairy

The Human Resource Council also notes that the distance separating agricultural wages from those in other sectors has gradually narrowed. The average weekly earnings in farming were two-thirds of the average for all sectors in 2000. Today, farm earnings hover around three-quarters of the all-sector average.

“Agricultural wages have been experiencing above-average growth over this period and have become more attractive relative to many other sectors,” reads the report.

But not everyone is convinced rising wages will help close the agricultural labour gap.

Ken Forth is labour section chair for the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association and president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services. He routinely sees agricultural positions paying $25 or $30 an hour go unfilled in rural areas.

“I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that if there’s not enough people to take those jobs at 25 and 30 bucks an hour, they’re not going to work for me for 12 bucks an hour,” says Forth, who farms near Hamilton.

Changing demographics, he says, is the real issue driving Canada’s agricultural labour gap.

“There just isn’t a lot of people,” Forth says. “The largest demographic in Canada is baby boomers, and we’re all old, okay? We’re not going to do that manual labour anymore and that’s the way it is.”

Canadian farms are getting bigger and more complex, as well, and farmers are facing pressure to increase production and feed export markets. Where family members could once be counted on to fill labour gaps, most producers now require a significant amount of hired help.

At the same time, more Canadians than ever before are living in large urban centres, further reducing the rural labour pool.

But anyone seeking a golden past — one where Canadians flocked to on-farm jobs — won’t find it in the history books. The struggle to fill agricultural positions in Canada began long before the last of the Prairie sod was turned, eased only by waves of immigrants fleeing geopolitical upheaval.

“From right after the First World War, it was all immigrants that came from Europe,” says Forth. “And then the Second World War came along and we had a whole lot of immigrants come from Eastern Europe, Italy and Portugal in this area, and they also worked on our farms.”

But it wasn’t a permanent labour force. The long-time broccoli grower says it was the men who left agriculture behind first, moving onto jobs in construction or manufacturing.

“The women worked for us in the summertime and their husbands worked in the steel mill the whole year round and they had a pretty good income by the mid-1960s,” explains Forth. “And then, all of a sudden, they had achieved what they needed to have, they had built a brand new house up in a new development in Hamilton and the wife wasn’t going to work anymore.”

The need for on-farm labour has also spawned some dark chapters in Canadian history. Between the late 1860s and 1948 an estimated 115,000 British Home Children — pushed from their families by dire poverty — were sent to Canada as indentured servants.

According to the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association, children as young as four were shipped to farms across the country with the promise of a better life that never materialized.

“The harsh truth was that the monitoring of children’s placements was often neglected, and many children found themselves essentially abandoned to new lives which were worse than the old,” according to the association. “Siblings were separated. Girls assisted farm wives not only with housework and children, but in the field, as well. Boys became farm workers who were grossly overworked.”

Both the Australian and British governments have apologized for their role in the child labour program, but Canadian survivors and their decedents still seek a formal apology from Canada’s prime minister.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has also shed light on the abuse of Indigenous children forced to work as unpaid farm labourers while living at residential schools. These children spent half their days doing farm work under the guise of vocational training, which the commission described as “not so much training as child labour.”

In 1975, the now defunct Winnipeg Tribune uncovered a 40-year-long government scheme forcing Indigenous families to work on sugar beet farms under threat of child apprehension, while Canadians of Italian, Ukrainian, German and Japanese ancestry were forced to work as farm labour after being sent to internment camps during both world wars.

Today, Canada relies on migrant labourers from developing countries to help fill the agricultural labour gap. In 1966 the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program was launched and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program developed its agricultural stream in 2002.

“The Seasonal Agricultural Program has 50 years of success in the country and it’s a program that has brought a lot of value to not only Canadians by securing Canadian jobs, but also to the host countries, where the workers come from,” says MacDonald-Dewhirst. She adds that many migrant workers are able to build homes in their countries of origin and put their children though school as a result of participating in the program.

“It’s quite powerful, the stories that come out of this, and not well known, not well circulated in the media,” she says. “It’s a really fabulous program that as Canadians we should all be proud of.”

Jamaica was the first participant, but Mexico, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Kitts-Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have since joined the seasonal worker program.

Forth has used the program for 49 years. In 2013, he was awarded the prestigious Badge of Honour for Long and Faithful Service by the prime minister of Jamaica, recognizing his contributions to the migrant labour program.

“Without these men and women that come to our farms, we wouldn’t have a business. We’d all be growing grains and oilseeds and that’s not what we do here. We grow fruits and vegetables,” says Forth. “We want this industry to continue… if you go to Vancouver, or Montreal or Toronto, it looks like we’ve got scads of people. Truth of the matter is, though, in a big country with a population of 33 million, nobody is home, especially in rural areas, there is not a lot of people, there’s just not, and this is a solid labour supply that helps the province and the country.”

According to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, about three-quarters of the current agricultural labour gap is filled by foreign workers, and migrant workers account for 12 per cent of the overall agricultural labour force in Canada.

While applying to the seasonal program is more complex today than it was five decades ago, Forth says organizations like Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services offers assistance in navigating the bureaucracy and preparing for inspections.

“They have to have their bunkhouse inspection, their water inspection, the advertising that they’ve done has to be submitted… and if it’s not all there, then at FARMS we don’t even send the order to Service Canada so it doesn’t plug up the system with orders that aren’t right. Forth adds an administrative fee of $45 is charged to the organization’s Ontario members and out-of-province participants pay $50 a person for the service.

Last year, approximately 21,000 migrant workers came to Ontario through the seasonal worker program, while about 5,000 workers went to British Columbia. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program brought an additional 53,303 workers to Canada in 2015 under its primary agriculture stream.

But critics say both programs lack oversight and leave foreign workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Johanna Dennie, an immigration lawyer at Legal Assistance Windsor, sees problems first-hand, including illegal recruitment fees charged to migrant workers, often under threat of physical harm or deportation.

“Recruitment fees charged to workers are not legal. If employers want to work with recruiters to have someone facilitate finding workers, bringing them to Canada, and placing them in jobs, employers are supposed to pay for all of that,” Dennie explains. “But what happens, I think really quite commonly, is that recruiters working in the countries of origin… prey on people who are already impoverished, who are just looking for just any opportunity to come to Canada. The recruiters make all kinds of promises about the opportunities in Canada and people pay tons of money. They mortgage their land and they go into enormous debt just to come to Canada, and in some cases, they actually find that the job they were told they were going to be doing doesn’t even exist.”

Last winter, a Windsor court convicted a man named Nehwin Wanhar of illegally collecting nearly $15,400 from three Indonesian greenhouse workers in Leamington. Similar cases have been heard in other provinces, but Dennie believes the issue is likely under-reported. Even if migrant workers can access resources, they often fear losing their jobs and being sent home.

Migrant workers technically have the same rights as Canadian workers, but Felix Martinez says those rights are harder to enforce. And while temporary workers make contributions to Unemployment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan, they are almost never able to collect from those programs. And if injured on the job, a migrant worker can even lose access to health care.

The B.C.-based representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada also says there are serious problems with how migrant workers are housed in Canada. “The federal requirements for housing under the seasonal agricultural workers program are totally unacceptable… they require only 75-square-feet-per-worker and one washroom for every 10 workers. This means that according to the federal government it is acceptable to have 10 adults living in a 750-foot house with one washroom for up to eight months,” Martinez says. “If the public was aware about the living and working conditions of most of the temporary foreign workers, they would be very upset. It is quite concerning that we allow this kind of treatment in Canada.”

Both programs also tie foreign workers to a specific employer, something Dennie says puts migrant workers at risk of repatriation and income loss if they speak out.

“Their status in Canada is entirely dependent on that job. So a lot of people, I think, stay quiet about abuses or exploitations because they are afraid to speak up,” says Dennie. Making work permits open, so workers can leave a hazardous or unfair situation and seek work on another farm, would be an easy fix, she adds.

Canada’s auditor general, Michael Ferguson, has also identified concerns about temporary foreign worker programs in Canada, including that they lack oversight and can suppress wages in the long term. Ferguson’s spring 2017 report found that “the department (Employment and Social Development Canada) did not adequately identify and deal with employers that were not following program requirements. It conducted few on-site inspections and face-to-face interviews with employers or temporary foreign workers.”

Other reports, like one written by Fay Faraday and published by the Metcalfe Foundation, also raise a host of concerns with the way temporary foreign workers are treated in Canada, while a human rights case in 2015 revealed 39 women had been subject to sexual abuse and harassment at one food packaging plant in Ontario.

That Canada’s reliance on foreign agricultural workers is predicated on global inequalities is also troubling for some advocates.

“It is because of the global inequalities that this exploitative program has been able to exist for so long,” Martinez says. “We frequently hear employers say that migrant workers are ‘happy’ to return year after year and that they never complain. It is no surprise they want to return. They have no other means of supporting their families… No one can argue that these workers are happy to leave their children behind for eight months every year to go live in a crowded house with strangers in the middle of nowhere, doing hard, physically demanding labour for 12 hours a day, for minimum wage.”

But despite the criticism, no one is looking to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“I think it’s not only sustainable to have foreign workers, but it’s necessary,” says Dennie. “I think that it’s the temporary nature that’s the problem, if we’re going to be relying on workers to come to Canada… we should recognize that people are valuable for more than just their labour.”

Many others agree.

“We’re an industry that requires a bigger work force in order to thrive and grow, and so to provide a pathway to permanency for those who are Canadian-trained and interested in remaining here makes a whole lot of sense, on a whole lot of levels,” says MacDonald-Dewhirst.

According to Statistics Canada, only three per cent of workers who come under the seasonal worker program become permanent residents, while 21 per cent of all those who come to Canada through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program make the transition.

Mushrooms Canada recently called for the federal government to provide permanent residency to the nearly 900 temporary foreign workers that make up one quarter of the sector’s work force. The organization says both the industry and its well-trained employees need stability to thrive. In a report issued this past fall, the group also challenged the notion that workers leave agriculture when given permanent residency, noting mushroom workers who gained permanent status continue to work in agriculture for 11 years on average. Mushroom harvesters who immigrated to Canada in the 1980s stayed in the industry 20 years or longer.

The main impediment to permanency, however, is that Canada’s immigration system favours immigrants with technical expertise and post-secondary education.

“Agricultural workers are classified as, for lack of a better term, low-skilled workers and they are not on the priority list,” says Bonnett. “I think we need to take a look at how to better define that skill set, because you take somebody picking mushrooms, or vegetables or working in greenhouses and there is skill involved in that… just saying that they are low skilled sometimes underestimates the fact they are as important to some of those operations as some of the other jobs.”

But Canada’s agricultural labour gap can’t be filled with foreign labour alone. The domestic labour pool must be expanded as well, according to the Human Resource Council. That means eliminating barriers to employment and generating buzz.

At Aylmer Community Services, Loewen often helps would-be farm workers tackle a basic, but sometimes overlooked, challenge that drastically shrinks the farm labour pool.

“As employment counsellors, the age-old saying is: How do we get the people out to the rural areas? How do we get people from the town who want to work on a farm out to that farm? There’s no public transportation,” says Loewen. “We’ve even discussed getting a bus to come to town to take people and that kind of thing, because it’s definitely an issue for a lot of people.”

It’s especially an issue for students who would be inclined to work on farm during the summer, but don’t have access to a vehicle.

“You’re not going to ride a bike for hours a day to then go and work in the pepper fields or the cucumber fields or whatever… that is not going to happen,” Loewen says.

Loewen also sees immigrant families who want to work in agriculture, but can’t find housing in rural areas. There was a time when farmers offered seasonal or even year-round housing to employees, but those arrangements have largely disappeared, the employment counsellor says.

“Years ago, it was a different industry, where the farmer would provide the meals for the people that are working, but now, I don’t see that,” she says. “There are just not a lot of incentives for people to work on the farm.”

In southeastern Manitoba, Keystone Agricultural Producers is working with Workplace Education Manitoba and Industry Training and Employment Services to create a pilot program that would see interested participants trained to work on dairy farms and overcome employment barriers.

“The idea behind it is to fill some of the gaps in labour for farmers in Manitoba,” says Keystone policy analyst Alanna Grey. “It’s pretty significant how some of the labour shortages you experience can impact the finances of your operation.”

The program identifies individuals with barriers to employment and provides them with training, skill upgrades and employment counselling, as well as support during their first five weeks working on a farm.

Janice Goldsborough, a human resources consultant with the general farm organization, says they “are looking at people who are on employment insurance, who might be on social assistance, First Nations, youth, as well as immigrants and refugees.”

While other livestock sectors like the pork industry see greater labour shortages, Goldsborough says dairy farms presented fewer obstacles in terms of finding participants.

“We decided to focus on the dairy sector, mainly because there’s usually not any cultural or religious restrictions,” she says. “In the swine industry, which would be another good avenue to go, we had to be mindful that some cultures, such as those for a lot of the refugees coming in, their religion forbids handling pork, so we thought, dairy is a pretty safe industry.”

But she adds that the program’s long-term goal is to expand to other commodities, possibly reducing reliance on the temporary foreign worker program.

However, the program hasn’t been met with unbridled enthusiasm by producers, some of whom raised concerns at a Dairy Farmers of Manitoba meeting this fall about the willingness and reliability of domestic workers. The prospect of finding transportation and housing for employees also incited some scepticism.

“I know you’re all probably thinking, well yeah, but they’re not going to show up on time, etc.,” Goldsborough tells producers. “Those are expectations and what we’re hoping is that we can overcome the barriers to employment and get them working, that they will consider this a great opportunity and pick up their socks and be a good employee for you.”

Better educating youth about what agriculture offers — whether as short-term employment between school years or as a career-long endeavour — has also been put forward as a way to grow the domestic labour force.

“People don’t gravitate to this industry because they are that much removed from agricultural operations in their own lives,” says Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst. “Those that are school-aged are not pursuing careers in the industry because they are not even thinking about agriculture at all. They don’t recognize that it is growing, that’s it is an industry with tons of potential and all sorts of interesting jobs.”

Ron Bonnett agrees. He’d like to see agriculture added to provincial curriculums across the country so students understand both the importance of agriculture and the opportunities it provides.

Back in the small town of Aylmer, Loewen would also like to see schools help dispel some of the negative perceptions around farm work.

“Agriculture is the backbone of Canada and I think it’s really unfortunate that the farmers cannot find the people that they need to harvest their crops,” she says.

Already, the Agricultural and Farming Jobs binder at Aylmer Community Services is filling up with openings for next season. Jobs like tobacco labourer, ginseng labourer, blueberry picker, field crops and vegetable worker, listed months in advance by pragmatic farmers, are alongside postings for permanent jobs like hog farm labourer and swine genetics laboratory tech.

“I think agriculture is getting a bad rap, unfortunately, even at school,” Loewen says. “A change in attitude would be great. If we could start the process to say, it’s okay to work in agriculture, I think it could go a long ways.”

About the author

Field editor

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist for Country Guide.

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