Canada’s recent launch of its Agri-Food Immigration Pilot is long overdue.
For decades, the country has struggled to find enough workers to support one of its most important industries. The agri-food industry results in $110 billion in domestic sales each year, plus an additional $65 billion in export sales. The industry supports 1 in every 8 jobs in Canada.
Talent shortages, however, have stunted the economic growth potential of agri-food.
A 2014 study found that there were 25,000 agri-food jobs left unfilled which resulted in $1.5 billion in lost economic output.
Due to talent shortages, the agri-food industry has become increasingly dependent on temporary foreign workers (TFWs).
Temporary visa holders previously accounted for 1 in every 20 workers within the agri-food industry. They now account for 1 in every 10 workers. They are forecast to account for 1 in every 5 workers within the coming years.
Why not hire Canadians?
One may legitimately ask, why can’t the agri-food industry hire more Canadians rather than relying on TFWs?
It’s a good question.
The primary reason is that many Canadians do not want to work in the agri-food industry.
The work itself can be physically challenging and overtime is often required due to worker shortages.
Often, work sites are remote, making the commute fairly time-consuming. Sometimes the work is seasonal in nature, so Canadian workers look for more stable sources of employment.
Pay within certain occupations in the agri-food industry is competitive, but there is only so much more that the industry can pay its workers. The reason for that is if it hikes salaries to attract more Canadian workers, it would have to pass on the costs to consumers, who are likely unwilling to pay substantially higher prices for food.
Imagine the outrage if Canadians had to start paying $5 per apple, for example.
It is also important to remember that Canada is not the only country that faces these challenges. Countries such as the U.S., U.K., and Australia have also long depended on TFWs to staff their agri-food industries.
Further, one needs to understand that it is inconvenient for the Canadian agri-food industry to hire TFWs. Each year, employers submit government paperwork to justify why they need to hire TFWs, which is time-consuming, costly, and also uncertain. Uncertainties include whether the government will approve your application to hire TFWs, and whether TFWs can arrive to Canada in time to support your operational needs.
It would be far more convenient and less expensive for the agri-food industry to hire Canadian workers, but relying on them to meet the industry’s needs has proven challenging due to the aforementioned reasons.
The Agri-Food Immigration Pilot is a good start
Over the next three years, Canada will admit up to 2,750 immigrants per year, plus their family members, under the pilot. Even if Canada welcomes this many immigrants in the next three years, it will not be enough to meet the industry’s needs. We must remember that millions of Canadians will be retiring over the coming decade which will affect every industry, including agri-food.
Nonetheless, the launch of the pilot is a good start. Following consultations with the industry, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has prioritized meat, animal, greenhouse, nursery, floriculture, and mushroom production occupations.
Enabling the industry to access a more stable supply of labour will help to alleviate worker shortages and support Canada’s economic growth.
Canada is hoping to increase the industry’s domestic sales to $140 billion and exports to $85 billion by 2025.
Hopefully the Agri-Food Immigration Pilot will help Canada achieve these targets.
Kareem El-Assal is the Director of Policy & Digital Strategy at CanadaVisa.
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