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Industry’s dependence on TFWs continues to grow

Labour shortages in Canada’s agriculture sector have doubled over the last decade and are projected to double again to 113,800 positions before 2025, according to a new Conference Board of Canada report.


December 2, 2016
By Conference Board of Canada

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Sowing the Seeds of Growth: Temporary Foreign Workers in Agriculture draws on findings from a three-year agriculture labour market research project conducted by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) in collaboration with the Conference Board. It found the sector needs about 100,000 more workers at its seasonal peak than at seasonal lows, and three-quarters of the labour gap has been filled by temporary foreign workers (TFWs).

The report examines why these workers play such an important role in the agriculture sector’s workforce. According to the results, the industry faces unique recruitment and retention challenges that are contributing to its growing labour shortages. These challenges include an aging workforce, the rural location of many operations, and negative perceptions about working in the sector.

According to the report, 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. The report says these seasonal fluctuations are why more than three-quarters of agricultural TFWs arrive as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

TFWs have become a key part of the sector’s continued operations and will likely continue to play a growing role in the future. The report found 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. In addition to easing much of the sector’s labour shortages, the report shows TFWs have contributed to the growth in agricultural production over the past decade and have supported the employment of Canadians in the sector. Many farm operators indicate they would have closed, leading to Canadian job losses, had they not had access to TFWs.

Finding solutions to the sector’s growing labour gap in the years to come is important. However, the report continues, just paying more or buying more machines are not the panacea they would seem. For example, wages in agriculture have risen relative to the average for all sectors over the past 15 years, but 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.

One potential solution suggested in the report may require re-evaluating the effectiveness of Canada’s immigration programs so they better meet the needs of the agriculture sector. With federal immigration policies geared toward attracting high-skilled workers, they offer few pathways for permanent residency for lower-skilled workers, even though agriculture has a critical need for them. The report concludes a path toward permanent residency for migrant workers, who are filling a permanent market need, would assist farm operators in finding a permanent solution to their labour challenges.