Coronavirus: Concerns over possible labour shortage in food-processing industry

New numbers from the food industry show there is a shortage of processing workers across Canada. One expert says COVID-19 outbreaks at meat-packing plants are making it harder to recruit workers. Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports.​

Estimates from Food and Beverage Canada and the Conseil de la Transformation Alimentaire du Quebec suggest that nearly 28,000 jobs in food processing are vacant in Canada now, according to a food policy researcher at Dalhousie University.

The Cargill plant in High River was once the site of Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak.

Since the plant idled and extensive safety measures were put in the place, there hasn’t been a single case, according to the union, but workers have had to speed up to keep up with demand.

Read more:
Union ‘cautiously optimistic’ COVID-19 outbreak at Calgary Cargill plant appears contained

“People are feeling quite anxious,” said UFCW Local 401 spokesperson Michael Hughes.

“There’s been a big push to keep the production high so the line speeds have been increased and that’s caused increased stress on our members.”

While the measures have kept workers stay safe, food experts say the outbreak hasn’t helped food-processing plants recruit workers.

“The challenge is more in food processing, where there are over 28,000 vacant positions right now — many of them in Alberta — and so they are struggling to get people into work at Cargill and in different places because of the bad PR early this year, recruitment has been difficult,” said Sylvain Charlebois, a senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Hughes said wages start at $21.25 an hour for a production worker at Cargill.

He said “pandemic pay” brought that up for awhile but was scaled back by the end of August.

“These are dangerous, dirty and difficult jobs. It’s hard to attract people to do those kinds of jobs at the best of times, but when your pay is not really increasing while the minimum wage is increasing, the food processors need to step up to get those applications in the door and get people working,” Hughes said.

Global News has reached out to Cargill for comment.

The Canadian Meat Council says Canada’s meat producers need permanent foreign workers. The group says under the existing temporary foreign worker program they can’t meet current and future market demands.

“Unfortunately a big part of that industry is really hesitant to increase wages so people generally don’t want to work there. So then they resort to the immigration system to try to supplement that,” Hughes said.

The Canadian Meat Council says its member wages are competitive and full benefits are provided by the meat packing companies.

Read more:
Meat prices, supply could change as industry grapples with COVID-19

Charlebois says raising wages is an option but that comes with the risk of rising food prices. He suggests a program that could incentivize Canadians to work in the sector.

“Perhaps willing Canadians wanting to work in the sector could get compensated while retaining a portion of their employment insurance for a while.

“A hybrid program of sorts. Despite Ottawa’s good intentions to keep people at home and safe, CERB, and now the new employment insurance program à la COVID, is not helping food manufacturing.” Charlebois said.

A spokesperson for Harmony Beef north of Calgary said it does not have a recruiting problem at the plant.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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