No one wants to return to the food insecurity scare we had at the start of the pandemic.
Even though food insecurity turned out to be mostly a false alarm, it’s now being followed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the instability that war is bringing to food and beverages globally. It’s a sector already facing what it calls a debilitating workforce crisis, with some companies reporting vacancy rates of more than 20 per cent.
How can you do business with that kind of shortage? It’s a problem that just never seems to get fixed or even pick up much ground.
Federally, both the ministers of agriculture and agri-food and of employment have been mandated to develop a sector-specific plan to address persistent and chronic labour shortages in farming and food processing, in the short- and long term.
I suspect they can point to some gains that they’ve made. But the problem is far from fixed. Food and Beverage Canada, the sector’s lobby group, says “the inability to secure a strong and stable workforce is impacting food security and economic recovery and is undermining our ability to support a domestic agriculture and food system.”
I’ve heard this shortage touted by agricultural colleges for decades, trying to encourage enrolment. Jobs galore exist in food and beverage production, they say. And they’re right, but nothing seems to be working, at least as far as recruiting on the home front goes.
So like many other areas of agriculture, this sector has looked to temporary foreign workers to do those production and processing jobs that don’t interest Canadians. It’s been well served by the temporary or seasonal foreign worker program.
But now, it wants Ottawa to turn up the jets. It’s calling for an emergency foreign worker program, to build on existing programs within Employment and Social Development Canada.
Food and beverage leaders say the program should remain in place for 18 months, through to summer 2023, during which time more permanent and long-term solutions to industry’s labour issues should be identified and phased in. Shortages in the meat processing sector are particularly on their minds.
Eleven industry associations presented an initial proposal for such a program to the feds in December 2021. They wanted it in place by the end of January. Ottawa has had a lot of things on its mind, and now, we’re into the first week of April.
But if you agree with the food and beverage sector’s perspective, as do many Canadians, you’ll wonder why Ottawa hasn’t moved food security to the front of the line.
The industry knows politicians need to hear from constituents about what they think is important. That way, they can represent their constituents’ needs and know that voters in their own ridings have their backs.
Do you think Ottawa should help the industry with a program that will perhaps alleviate the food worker shortage?