ONTARIO – With barbecue season just around the corner, the meat industry is renewing its efforts to find enough skilled workers to keep their abattoirs running efficiently and servicing an ever-growing market.

The importance of the meat sector is not to be under estimated. The Canadian Meat Council indicates that the meat industry has annual sales of $28-billion, exports of $6.1-billion, and facilitates over 66,330 Canadian jobs, making it the largest component of Canada’s food processing sector.

The general labour shortage in agriculture, and in meat processing in particular, is nothing new. May 2017 research by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC)  surveyed 15 rural meat processing facilities. The study showed a vacancy rate of 9.3 per cent, whereas the national average of other Canadian industries was 1.8 per cent. This means there were 1,475 vacant meat cutter stations among those surveyed, putting the meat processing value chain in jeopardy.

Meat processing companies report that vacancies are affecting the sustainability of Canadian food processing, restricting the ability of meat processors to fill current orders, affecting growth for the agriculture and food sector, increasing costs for Canadian consumers, driving value-added activities and jobs to the United States and other countries, and ultimately hollowing out rural Canada.

There are several factors contributing to the on-going labour shortage. First, most abattoirs are located in rural areas, closer to where livestock are produced, but farther from the cities where available workers live. Second, there has also been a noticeable decline in the number of Canadians willing to work in the industry as butchers and meat cutters. Third, the strong general economy has created low unemployment everywhere, particularly in the rural areas. And finally, many long-time industry workers are retiring and creating even more vacancies.

“The food processing sector is one of the manufacturing segments that still requires a lot of manpower. The labour shortage puts pressure on our production capacities and on our growth,” explains Richard Vigneault, corporate communications for Olymel. “So far and because we invest a lot of efforts and creativity in our recruitment system, we have been able to cope with this situation. But it’s a huge challenge that will remain present in the coming years and will affect not only Olymel, but all manufacturers.”

In recent years, the meat industry labour shortages have been partially filled with Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW), however, current federal regulations limit the maximum number of foreign workers allowed to work for a company at 10 per cent. Olymel would like to see that increased to 20 per cent.

“According to our experience, the vast majority of Temporary Foreign Workers want to stay in Canada and have their family members join them. We support them by providing help in the process because we trained them and we would like to keep them as our employees – like we want to keep all our employees,” explained Vigneault. “Olymel offers very good conditions with salaries starting well over the minimum wages, stability and long-term job security. All of our plants are unionized and offer a wide range of social benefits that makes their global remuneration more attractive and competitive. Olymel is also a company offering multiple Human Resources programs, training programs and many opportunities to pursue a career.”

A statement issued in January by the Canadian Meat Council said Canadian meat packers and processor are already “reducing or curtailing the production of value-added items; diverting specialty meats to lower value rendering, rather than harvesting them for export; forfeiting existing and new export opportunities; decreasing profitability, competitiveness and business sustainability; and, increasing the number of Canadian jobs that are being placed at risk.”

As a consequence, livestock producers sell fewer animals at lower prices to Canadian meat packers and become more dependent upon export sales to U.S. meat processors. But by exporting livestock rather than processing them in Canada, the industry is effectively transporting jobs and economic opportunity out of the country; not to mention jeopardizing the competitiveness of the Canadian livestock and meat sector.

CAHRC research shows there are currently about 59,000 unfilled jobs in the agriculture sector and that primary agriculture has the highest industry job vacancy rate of all sectors at seven per cent. Without any changes in farm worker recruitment or supply, the worker shortfall could reach 114,000 jobs by 2025.