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Food industry requests emergency access to foreign workers amid labour woes

Industry associations say COVID-related worker shortage is impacting the entire supply chain
Meats of all types raw before it is packaged and shipped to stores and restaurant
Shutterstock/El Nariz

Canadian food processors are lobbying the federal government to create an "emergency" temporary foreign worker program to address chronic labour shortages they say have been exacerbated by the Omicron variant.

A group of industry associations representing the food and beverage processing sector—including Food and Beverage Canada, the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council, and the Canadian Meat Council—have asked Ottawa to increase the existing cap on the number of temporary foreign workers an employer can operate with.

The industry groups want the rules changed to allow for 30% of an employer's workforce to be made up of TFWs, instead of the current levels of 10% to 20%.

They also want faster foreign worker application processing times, new pathways to permanent residency for TFWs working in the sector, and a pilot program that would direct refugees to the food and beverage processing sector.

"We urgently need the government to help our food processors and implement the measures we are recommending," said Marie-France McKinnon, spokeswoman for the Canadian Meat Council, which represents the country's federally registered meat-packing and processing plants.

"Our critical labour shortages impact the whole supply chain from producer to consumer."

Food processing in this country has long been heavily reliant on immigrants and temporary foreign workers. Jobs at slaughterhouses and canning plants are physically difficult, require shift work and are often located in rural areas, making labour attraction and retention an ongoing challenge for the sector.

Now, with the highly contagious Omicron variant resulting in high rates of absenteeism and quarantining among workers in all industries, McKinnon said the situation had gotten worse. Some plants are reporting job vacancy rates as high as 30%, she said.

"There are definitely shifts and production lines impacted," McKinnon said. "We are working diligently to ensure we can keep operations going . . . but the bigger issue remains a systemic labour shortage that is threatening food stability in our country."

Last week, a slaughterhouse in Quebec opted to euthanize thousands of chickens that couldn't be processed, blaming rising COVID-19 infections among employees as well as federal delays processing temporary foreign worker applications for its protracted staff shortage.

Quebec-based Olymel, which operates approximately 40 hog and chicken processing plants in Canada, also reported seeing an increase in COVID cases among its employees that was resulting in reduced production speeds in some locations.

Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said this week that the company's beef processing plant in High River, Alta. was operating at a "slightly reduced capacity" to its typical pandemic output due to case numbers among employees.

Marco Luciano, director of Migrante Alberta—a group that advocates for migrant workers and TFWs—said he understands the pressing labour needs affecting the food and beverage processing sector. But he said creating an emergency foreign worker program was not the answer.

"Canada already has 1.8 million immigration applications in backlog . . . creating a new program will continue to jam the system," Luciano said.

Instead, Canada should focus on expediting the processing of applications already in the system, as well as creating an effective and expanded regularization program that will provide status to the approximately 500,000 undocumented migrants in the country.

"These undocumented migrants are former migrant workers that for one reason or another lost their status and made that hard decision to stay," Luciano said, adding that extending permanent residency to undocumented individuals would immediately create a whole new source of labour for industry.

According to independent livestock market analyst Kevin Grier, volumes of animals processed in both Canada and the U.S. have decreased recently. According to USDA data, hog slaughter on Tuesday, Jan. 11, was an estimated 458,000, roughly 25,000 less than what analysts expected.

U.S. cattle slaughter is also down about 6% from this time in 2021, Grier said, and similar impacts are being seen in Canada.

"It definitely is impacting our production. It's down notably in cattle at some plants. It's hitting us in hogs, it's hitting us in chicken," he said.

Anecdotal reports from Canadians have suggested some grocery stores are experiencing sporadic shortages of some items, but Grier said that can't be directly linked to the processing sector. The B.C. flooding event, trucker shortages, shortages of grocery store workers, and even panic buying behaviour could all be factors.

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