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Sylvain CharleboisRural Canada is expecting a massive exodus of foreign workers which can potentially become a losing situation for everyone.

As of April 1, temporary foreign workers who have been in Canada at least four years will be forced to leave the country. Since Canadian agriculture employs well over 50,000 foreign workers to support farming and processing facilities across the country, losses to this labour force will be considerable and are really coming at the wrong time. For many commodities, current high prices are making market conditions favourable to more supplies. So, in essence, agriculture may face a severe, sudden labour shortage.

Some groups are now pushing for a moratorium and a reprieve. In the past, before rules changed in 2011, foreign workers could simply reapply to continue working in Canada for their employer. The new rule limits working permit durations to four years. Workers now have to wait four years after their working permit expires to reapply. A number of workers are currently at risk of leaving Canada after working in the country for more than a decade.

Some may suggest that the current situation stems from poor strategic planning. Perhaps, but human capital is a very thorny issue in the agrifood sector.

It has always been challenging to attract and retain local talent in agriculture due to seasonality and working conditions. Some have been attracted to agriculture, but regrettably, it is more an exception than the norm. Many jobs in farming and food processing expose workers to damp, cold, intensive work conditions which many Canadians shy away from. Strangely, many city dwellers see agriculture as a bucolic, romantic way of life. Let’s face it, a job in the agrifood sector is hard work. It is also often physically arduous.

Local knowledge about these jobs is also lacking. Training Canadians in these jobs will be a challenge for many of our facilities because most foreign workers are accustomed to our regulations, practices, organizational cultures and expected work ethics. Over the years they have developed the proper skill sets for the job at hand.

Food safety, for example, relies on in-house discipline and daily, rigorous risk mitigation practices. The report on the XL Foods major food recall pointed to the fact that language and cultural differences were not properly addressed by the company and may have contributed to how employees were ill-prepared to manage food safety risks. Under new management, one can speculate that the situation has changed in Brooks, Alberta.

Shifts in human capital will drive costs upwards, and not necessarily because of higher wages. Foreign workers actually make a decent living working in Canada. However, recruitment and advertisement cost money. Canadian employers will need to conduct more work just to fill fields and plants, never mind making their operations profitable. That said, in Western Canada, the oil patch woes may be good news for agriculture. Some layoffs have been reported in recent months, and many workers may see agriculture as an interesting opportunity to continue their work in Canada. Yet, that remains to be seen.

Most importantly, though, the wellbeing of foreign workers themselves should be taken into consideration. They come to Canada with a dream of a better life, a higher quality of life for themselves and their love ones. We often forget that Canadians are lucky to live in a country where resources abound. We should always remember that Canada is an inclusive society and should offer equal opportunity to everyone. The program does not take jobs away from Canadians. In fact, the program was created due to our lack of interest in these jobs. This new rule may hamper our ability to prosper while offering hope to citizens from abroad.

So, in essence, when considering how regulatory changes will impact agriculture, the Harper government has clearly gotten the temporary foreign workers situation wrong. It should reconsider its position on the program and provide more time so temporary workers can become permanent residents.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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