Opinion: Agriculture is finally at the immigration table

Recent pilot program is a large step to making immigration work for agriculture

Farmers and farm workers feel we finally have a seat at the Canadian immigration table with the recent Agri-Food Immigration Pilot project announced in July.

At last we can say agriculture is part of Canada’s official immigration plan, with the new immigration pilot allowing 2,750 federal immigration spots. Farm workers and butchers of all skill levels, employed in year-round occupations, will now have a chance to immigrate in all provinces of Canada.

Why it matters: The agriculture and food sector is facing an acute shortage of labour that threatens to cripple future growth.

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Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) research shows agriculture’s 16,500 vacancies are more than job vacancies in any Canadian sector with an estimated $2.9 billion in lost sales to the Canadian economy — double what it was in 2014.

In 2017, Canadian mushroom farms had a 9.7 per cent job vacancy rate. That’s now climbed to 19.3 per cent.

Unfilled jobs mean we have to throw out 23 per cent of our harvest — a nearly $50 million annual loss. The demand is greatest for jobs classified as “lower-skilled” (mushroom pickers/harvesters), which also has the highest job vacancy in the mushroom sector.

This is affecting Canadian farmers’ ability to produce food and expand their farms. It is also increasing food imports, driving up food costs, and affecting the availability of local, fresh food.

The current situation underlines the need for Canadian farmers to access legal mobility programs like the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) and the new immigration pilot for agricultural year-round jobs.

Agriculture needs immigration access just like any other sector because it contributes $111 billion per year to our economy, over six per cent of Canada’s GDP. That’s $304 million per day, creating 2.3 million jobs.

Food safety standards in Canada are well known and make the Canada brand highly sought after. Mushroom farms contribute more than $900 million to the Canadian economy annually and create 4,000 jobs with competitive wages and benefits. Growth and export potential for mushrooms is phenomenal, increasing by $50 million last year alone.

At the turn of the 20th century, Canada’s agriculture and immigration policy were intertwined. That is how Canada was settled. For the last decade or more, however, mushroom growers and other farmers, have fought for immigration access for workers employed in year-round jobs.

Mushroom farms employ 70 per cent Canadians. When Canadians do not apply, international workers are an important and valued part of our Canadian agricultural workforce. Mushroom entry level workers start at minimum wage, receive months of training, and experienced workers can make up to $29 per hour.

Supervisors earn between $35,000 to more than $80,000 per year.

Canadian Mushroom Growers also support a Trusted Employer Program, fair labour standards and ethical recruitment practices.

Our farms support the Canadian-first approach. Currently, to access the TFWP agricultural stream, to protect jobs for Canadian workers, a farm employer must complete a successful Labour Market Impact Assessment, proving the need and that strict labour conditions are met.

While we strongly support the new Agri-Food Immigration Pilot, we think the newly proposed TFWP occupation work permit changes, affecting the mandate of the program, is the wrong direction to go.

No study has been conducted regarding this new TFWP change that will impact the labour market and the Canadian economy. A study should include Canadian farm employers, international farm workers active in the program and Canadian farm workers.

We value and respect our Agricultural Temporary Foreign Workers who are filling job vacancies for positions Canadians are not applying for. We are worried this change will increase our labour shortage and we also have other concerns.

How will TFWs be tracked? Could this lead to workers entering the underground economy? Is there a risk that workers could be recruited by unscrupulous individuals and end up victimized by traffickers?

There are problems with the current program but we can address these concerns. Abuse should result in swift removal from the TFWP.

We would also like to see the TFWP become proactive in protecting workers through Respect for Access to Remedy, an International Organization of Migration (IOM), as well as provincial labour standards that are missing in the TFWP.

Legislation should be strengthened on the definitions of abuse and the consequences, protections against reprisals, a robust conflict resolution system for employees and employers, and work permit timelines should be expedited for vulnerable workers.

Why are these missing TFWP components not being actioned?

In a time of trade tariffs and trade wars that Canada doesn’t control, we need to ensure we research any changes to the TFWP that could bring unintended consequences for vulnerable workers and to our food system.

Work in rural Canada has value. We need more people in rural Canada. We’re grateful we are at the table.

And now it’s time to give rural Canada a chance.

We need more incentives for TFWs and new immigrants to work in rural areas to fill the job vacancies. For year-round jobs like mushrooms, we need time to support workers who are interested in farm work, time to settle and support them in our communities on their pathway to permanent residency.

For our workers and farm employers to be successful, more time is what we need, not more labour shortages and bureaucracy.

Ryan Koeslag is executive vice president of Canadian Mushroom Growers Association.

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