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Replacing TFWs with domestic workers will lead to higher food costs: Report

The number of TFW arrivals to Canada has fallen by 14% because of the pandemic, but hiring Canadian workers is not a viable solution, says University of Calgary report
Shutterstock/Andrii Yalanskyi

Labourers from Mexico and the Caribbean have become a “large and indispensable” part of Canada’s agricultural industry over the years, and any attempt to replace them with domestic workers would result in labour shortages, higher food prices and poorer selection, says a new report.

The report from the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy says temporary foreign workers (TFWs) have become a “keystone” of Canada’s agriculture industry, representing 20.9% of all employees in the sector. That number rises to 46% when considering just paid employees (ie: excluding unpaid family members).

Report author Robert Falconer says foreign labour ensures Canadians have access to grocery stores that are fully stocked with affordable products. Any disruption to this formula, he says, can lead to fewer Canadian food exports and an increased reliance on imports for our food supply.

A record 64,000 TFWs worked in the Canadian agriculture sector in 2019, according to a July report also authored by Falconer, but that number has fallen by 14% this year because of the global pandemic. The decline is most acute in the country’s seafood processing plants, which have seen a 60% drop in TFW arrivals.

READ: Canada’s agriculture sector is at a COVID-19 ‘tipping point

That has led to speculation that those jobs could be given to Canadians who themselves have been put out of work by the pandemic, but Falconer says there would be little desire for these types of jobs among Canadians. “The idea that Canadian labourers will seek out physical (sic) intensive and highly seasonal employment in agriculture hearkens to a mythical past that never existed,” he says.

The report says Canada’s food production was once the domain of small farms that relied on unpaid family labour. That changed in the postwar period, when a wave of consolidation created fewer farms of substantially larger size requiring outside labour to manage.

READ: Quebec farms facing lost profits, rotting harvests due to migrant worker shortage

Canada introduced the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) in 1966 and has seen the number of both “own-account” farmers and unpaid family members continually decline over the ensuing decades, reaching a new low of 117,000 in 2019.

The report notes that domestic participation in farm labour has declined even as wages have increased, citing the physically taxing nature of the work, the need to travel “considerable distances” to farms and processing plants or live onsite, and the ability to work fewer hours to achieve the same income, among the reasons.

Falconer says rather than trying to recruit domestic workers, a more sensible approach would be for the government to enact policies that would help ameliorate the “pandemic-related challenges” to the foreign labour supply.

In July, the federal government announced it would invest $58.6 million to strengthen the TFW program and make further investments to protect the health and safety of both Canadian and temporary foreign workers from COVID-19, including earmarking $35 million to improve health and safety on farms and employee living quarters, and $16.2 million to strengthen the employer inspections, with an emphasis on farms.


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