Trained, Vital Ag Workers Should Not Have to Leave

A full-court press, led by Canadian mushroom growers, is on to try to stop hundreds of foreign workers specially trained for agriculture jobs in Canada from having to leave.

On April 1, a federally mandated rule kicks in that requires them go home if they’ve been here four years. And it’s going to affect the industry, big time.

Take Monaghan Mushrooms of Campbellville, for example. Over the past few years, it’s hired and trained dozens of foreign workers, helping them become skilled labourers. These workers are now an important part of their and other mushroom growers’ operations.

For one thing, they’re eager and willing to do the kind of manual labour that many Canadians shun.

They’ve contributed significantly. They’ve worked hard. They’ve spent money in the community and in Monaghan’s case, they’ve helped the company become a world leader in the mushroom business.

And now Monaghan is preparing to bid adieu to 32 such workers. It doesn’t add up.

Now, if Canada was swimming in labour, if Canadians were clamouring to do manual labour and if these workers were doing jobs that were easily taught to others, you could perhaps understand this four-year stipulation.

But that’s not the case. Companies such as Monaghan are up against the wall when it comes to finding labour. It is simply unavailable. Company spokesman George Graham says he is in “dire need” of labour. He routinely runs ads on local radio and in newspapers trying to recruit workers. But he gets few bites.

So he and others have turned to foreign workers…which in the agriculture sector, has become pretty normal.

Ottawa must know that. But it bears mentioning just in case.

Here’s why it’s affecting mushroom companies in particular. Mushroom harvesting must be done manually, like some other crops, but it’s also an especially methodic job when it comes to knowing the 5ws and h of how and when to pick. And unlike certain vegetable and fruit crops, it’s a year-round business, not seasonal. Mushrooms are grown and picked 24-7, 52 weeks a year.

Monaghan runs new recruits through a 15-week training program, which includes classroom time and hands-on harvesting training. Workers are guaranteed minimum wage, but the more mushrooms they pick, the more they earn. Some get $20-plus per hour.

But for many, it takes about six months just to get the hang of it. That’s why this is a long-term proposition.

Graham says if things don’t change with access to foreign labour, “it will put severe shackles on organizations like ours.” Access to labour is critical for the operation of a successful mushroom business, he says. Many opportunities to grow both the home and export markets are being limited by the current restrictive practices. The feds, with their interest in exports, should take note of that.

Everyone’s known about the April 1 deadline for months (see RealAgriculture.com story of earlier coverage here). Mushroom industry representatives have travelled repeatedly to Ottawa over the late summer, fall and winter, trying in vain to get the right people to listen and take action on their plea to suspend the deadline and, in a best-case scenario, let them stay permanently.

Why not? They’re fully trained, productive, gainfully employed and filling a role Canadians don’t want. Why send them back?

Here’s another election-year opportunity for Ottawa to look good, look like it understands agriculture, look like it wants to help the industry and not be bound by red tape.

No one can see an up side to sending these workers back — at least, no one who has piped up publicly.

Says Graham of his 32 workers who are starting to pack their bags: “They don’t want to go. They are deeply upset – it’s very sad. They have established a good work-life balance here. They have a network of friends. They like what they are doing.”

They should be allowed to stay.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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One Comment

Allan Campbell

Canadian beekeepers are facing the same disastrous policy. This 4 in 4 out rule will have devastating results on honey producers and pollinators right across the country. As if we weren’t already facing crisis with higher than average bee losses in most provinces, honey production is down across the entire country, and some growers cannot get enough bees for their pollination. Now we are losing the highly valuable trained foreign workers. There are not enough young people still on the farm to support those jobs, our tireless recruitment efforts prove that year after year. We are required to report results of the advertising to Ottawa, they know that we are dependant on trained foreign help and still they won’t listen. In our industry, every trained Apiary Technician who has 4+ years experience creates 2 more jobs to support them! As the president of The Manitoba Beekeeper’s Association I can say we fully support the mushroom growers and demand an exemption to this poorly planned rule.

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