Meat is shown in a grocery store in Toronto on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. 

Meat packers call for changes to foreign worker cap to address labour shortage crisis

Meat packers call for changes to foreign worker cap to address labour shortage crisis

CALGARY — Canadian meat packers are lobbying the federal government to let them bring in more temporary foreign workers in light of a labour shortage crisis they say has reached an “all-time high.”

The Canadian Meat Council — which represents Canada’s federally registered meat packers and processing plants — said Friday there are more than 4,000 empty butcher stations at meat production facilities countrywide, working out to an average job vacancy rate of more than 10 per cent.

In Quebec, the situation is even more severe, with job vacancy rates approaching 40 per cent, said Canadian Meat Council spokeswoman Marie-France Mackinnon. Alberta plants are also struggling, with vacancy rates hovering near 20 per cent, she said.

“Without a workforce, you can’t operate,” Mackinnon said, adding several Canadian packing plants were forced to temporarily shut down production lines over the summer due to a shortage of workers.

“”It really limits our ability to have made-in-Canada protein. It means more meat is being processed in the U.S. and other countries, and more meat imports for Canadians,” she said.

Mackinnon said the industry is asking the federal government to relax the rules governing how many temporary foreign workers meat processing employers can employ at any one time — from a current cap of 10 to 20 per cent, depending on the facility, to 30 per cent, which was what was allowed under Canada’s temporary foreign worker program before it was overhauled by former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government in 2014.

“We need a reset to the cap,” Mackinnon said. “One of our members is reporting losses of $700,000 per week due to lack of manpower, so nearly $3 million per month.”

Labour force shortages have long been an issue for Canada’s meat-packing sector, which for years has said it struggles to find Canadians who want to become butchers. Though the jobs offer unionized wage rates and benefit packages, they are also physically demanding, rurally located, and many find them unappealing.

But COVID-19 has worsened an existing problem. Richard Vigneault, spokesperson for Quebec-based pork and poultry processor Olymel, said some workers may have chosen to stay home and rely on government support programs rather than work in the industry during a pandemic.

“It’s tough for any manufacturer to find employees right now,” Vigneault said. “The competition on the market now is really tight. But we’re working very hard to cope with the labour shortage across Canada and we’re working on all fronts to be able to operate as normally as possible.”

At Cargill Foods, which operates beef processing plants in Guelph, Ont., and High River, Alta., the company is offering signing bonuses and increased base pay in an effort to attract talent, as well as exploring benefits like child care, on-site medical services, and housing support, said company spokesman Daniel Sullivan.

“Of course, we are also looking at what the workplace of the future looks like which will absolutely include more digitalization and automation,” Sullivan said in an email.

Cameron Bruett, spokesman for JBS Foods — which operates a major beef packing plant near Brooks, Alta., — said the facility is currently operating “as normal” though he acknowledged that labour is a challenge at this time. He said the company is doing a number of things to attract and retain employees, including offering paid community college tuition to workers and their dependants.

In the early days of the pandemic, the Cargill plant at High River became the site of Canada’s then-largest outbreak of cases at a single facility, with more than 900 employees getting sick and two worker deaths. An outbreak last spring at the JBS facility near Brooks sickened more than 600 workers and resulted in one death. Olymel has also dealt with significant outbreaks, at locations in both Quebec and Alberta.

However, mass on-site vaccination clinics at the country’s largest meat-packing facilities earlier this year have significantly reduced the toll of the virus on the industry’s workforce in the last half of 2021.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2021.

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press

Temporary foreign workers