Agriculture sector’s reliance on temporary foreign workers growing: Report

Labour shortages have doubled over last decade, expected to double again to 113,800 positions before 2025
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 12/06/2016
A blueberry picker picks fruit at Lohas Farms in Richmond, B.C., in 2016. REUTERS/Julie Gordon

Canada’s agriculture sector faces a persistent lack of sufficient workers with the right skills and in the right places. Labour shortages have doubled over the last decade and are projected to double again to 113,800 positions before 2025, according to a Conference Board of Canada report that relies on research from a three-year labour market research project conducted by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) in collaboration with the Conference Board.

“The agriculture sector is having difficulty recruiting and retaining domestic workers. As labour shortages have expanded, the sector has increasingly turned to temporary foreign workers to fill the labour gap,” said Michael Burt, director of industrial economic trends at the Conference Board of Canada. “Finding solutions to the labour shortages in the years to come is critical for the future growth of the sector.”

At its seasonal peak, the sector needs about 100,000 more workers than at seasonal lows. Three-quarters of the sector’s labour gap has been filled by temporary foreign workers.

The industry faces unique recruitment and retention challenges that are contributing to its growing labour shortages, such as an aging workforce, the rural location of many operations, and negative perceptions about working in the sector, said Sowing the Seeds of Growth: Temporary Foreign Workers in Agriculture.

The most prominent challenge is the large seasonal fluctuations in employment. At its seasonal peak, the agriculture sector needs about 100,000 more workers than at its seasonal lows, which represents a 30 per cent fluctuation. The average difference between the seasonal peak and low in employment for all other sectors is just four per cent. These seasonal fluctuations are why more than three-quarters of agricultural temporary foreign workers (TFWs) arrive as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

TFWs have been able to fill three-quarters of the industry’s labour shortage gap and now represent one-in-10 workers in the sector, said the report.

And while wages in agriculture have risen relative to the average for all sectors over the past 15 years, the number of Canadians willing to work in agriculture has shrunk. At the same time, a dramatic increase in the amount of machinery employed per worker has contributed to agriculture experiencing the strongest labour productivity gains of any major sector over the past 20 years. Yet, the sector’s labour gap has continued to expand, said the Conference Board.

One potential solution may be re-evaluating the effectiveness of Canada’s immigration programs so they better meet the needs of the agriculture sector. Federal immigration policies geared toward attracting high-skilled workers offer few pathways for permanent residency for lower-skilled workers, even though agriculture has a critical need for them, said the report.

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