EDMONTON - Backlash against the temporary foreign worker program has made Ottawa leery of finding a new way for the food-processing sector to get the people it needs to fill vacant jobs, officials say.
Mark Chambers is with an industry group that has presented a plan to the federal government on how it should deal with a labour shortage that he says is hobbling exports.
It calls for a new program to make it easier to hire foreign workers who would become permanent residents of Canada and ultimately citizens, he said.
"We have laid it out in black and white, but I think the challenge is it is a political hot potato," said Chambers, who is a manager at Sunterra Farms, a hog operation near Acme, Alta.
Chambers said the federal government wants the industry to hire Canadians to fill vacant jobs in slaughter and processing plants in rural areas.
So does the industry, he said, but Canadians who live in urban areas with high unemployment rates just don't want the available jobs.
The meat industry estimates it is currently short about 1,000 workers. That will be exacerbated July 1 when the federal government is to cap the number of new foreign workers that companies can hire at 20 per cent.
Chambers said Ottawa has been aware of the labour shortage for more than a year, but there is no indication it will back off its plans. Next year the cap is to be cut to 10 per cent.
The Canadian Meat Council said the shortage is jeopardizing the industry at a time when government is working to bolster agriculture.
The new Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement calls for duty-free access to the European Union for 50,000 tonnes of beef products and up to 81,000 tonnes of pork.
Ron Davidson, a council spokesman, said that will be tough to fill without enough workers.
Davidson said the government got lots of positive media coverage last year when it announced changes to the temporary foreign worker program because of problems in the mining and banking sectors.
But that controversy should not get in the way of a new program for agriculture, he suggested.
"We don't want temporary foreign workers," he said. "We want permanent workers. And if there aren't Canadians who are willing to do the job, then we wish to be able to bring in people who want to immigrate to Canada and be Canadian citizens."
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has said the government is working on the problem, but he hasn't indicated what is planned or when.
The industry group hopes to meet with federal officials this summer.
Chambers said Ottawa's approach is frustrating. He noted there are already 20 vacant jobs at Sunterra Farms, which has a small meat- processing plant.
"We now have some new markets in Asia, but if we can't get enough people cutting the meat, we won't be able to capture those opportunities. It makes no sense."
Canadian companies may have to export more live animals to the United States for processing, which would mean lost jobs and economic growth, he said.
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