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Should temporary migrant workers become permanent citizens?

The food processing industry – the country’s largest manufacturing employer – is warning everyone of a possible 25 per cent labour shortage over the next five years.

It’s a sobering figure, but far from a shock. We’ve had many warnings, particularly earlier in 2020 when the pandemic hit and food security suddenly became an issue. Employees off work with the COVID-19 virus added to the challenge food providers face trying to fill jobs at the best of times.

And we saw the lack-of-labour issue surface again over the past few weeks when the virus infected a Guelph meat packer.      

So, what needs to happen over the next five years to make sure we remain fed despite labour shortages?

The first thing is automation and innovation.

Let’s face it, people won’t change, so the jobs must. No one wants to do labour-intensive food processing work that’s physically demanding, performed at close quarters (like meat packers)  and generally regarded as undesirable.

Some of these jobs are prime candidates for automation… provided researchers, governments and companies can work together on some fundamental approaches to replacing manual labour.

That takes time and investment. Meanwhile, someone has to do those jobs, and in Canada and in other wealthy nations, those roles are increasingly filled by international workers. Canadians and Canadian farmers are highly dependent on these temporary migrant workers; they account for 17 per cent of the total employment in the sector.

And further to the sobering reality of labour shortages, when the imported workforce was curtailed in the spring because international workers were held back from travel in their home countries, near panic struck the agri-food sector that depends on them. Crops went unplanted and, later, unharvested.

But what if those international workers, whose status in our country is temporary, became permanent?

Local senator Rob Black wonders if that’s the way forward. In the fall he teamed up with Senator Ratna Omidvar to take Canadians’ pulse on this matter. They found that more than eight in 10 Canadians would support (40 per cent) or somewhat support (41 per cent) providing a way for temporary migrant workers to remain in Canada.

They say that although temporary foreign workers pay into the same benefits as domestic workers, in some situations they have difficulty accessing these benefits, due in part to the precarious nature of their immigration status. 

“We need more concrete and equitable improvements to our migrant worker program,” says Omidvar. “Since the workers are essential to our well-being and safety, then the safest, prudent and the most humane way forward is to provide them with more permanent residency options.”

Adds Black: “The pandemic has highlighted the fact that temporary migrant workers and seasonal agricultural workers are essential to Canada. We are calling on the Government of Canada to look for pathways to permanency for essential workers, should they so desire.”

This presents a fascinating picture of the future, a new era where temporary workers become permanent citizens and a legal pipeline is created that allows them to do so.

It also raises some important questions. For example, will international workers that become permanent still be a reliable labour force?

And what happens to the families of those once-temporary workers? Often the workers send home their wages to keep the families afloat. Will those families also be welcomed here by the Canadian government? Will their home countries support such a program?

Not to mention the biggest question: do temporary workers want to live permanently in Canada? I’m sure some of them do. If that’s the case, they’ll need the government’s support. But if they’d prefer to spend the late fall, winter and early spring in their home countries, will a temporary program still be in place?

Whatever the case, we need action to address the labour situation, and senators Black and Omidvar deserve kudos for trying to help.

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