Policy paper: With a lack of temporary foreign workers, are higher food prices and fewer food choices for Canadians on the horizon?
September 2, 2020 By Fruit and Vegetable
The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic have made it harder for temporary foreign workers (TFWs) to travel to Canada to work in food production, as they normally would, at the same time that there are large numbers of unemployed Canadians due to the economic lockdown.
Some people, including policy-makers, might be tempted into believing that perhaps the two problems can solve each other, by deploying Canadian workers to the farms, ranches and food-processing plants to fill the jobs that would normally go to TFWs. It is simply not the case.
The University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy with author, Robert Falconer, released the second report in a series that examines the role of temporary foreign workers in the Canadian agriculture sector. The report provides policy options for securing Canada’s agricultural sector, while improving labour conditions and outcomes for migrant workers.
According to Falconer, “History suggests that any attempt to manage our food supply system without a heavy reliance on foreign workers could easily result in higher food prices and poorer food choices for Canadian consumers at the supermarket. For decades, food producers have tried to utilize more domestic labour through various means, including higher wages. However, Canadian workers have, for various reasons, largely been reluctant to work on farms or in other parts of the food-processing system and food producers have been forced instead to resort to a combination of technological solutions and an imported, temporary labour force.”
Any government trying to shut down the TFW program and replace the labour pool it provides with domestic workers could find little uptake among Canadians, resulting in labour shortages. With producers unable to rapidly or completely substitute missing workers with mechanization, the result could be higher prices for domestically produced food, reduced Canadian food exports and a greater reliance on imports for our food supply.
A different approach would be for governments to enact policies that help ameliorate the pandemic-related challenges to the foreign supply of labour. This could include promoting better health and safety regulations through programs, subsidies and enforcement. It could also include measures that provide temporary workers with greater flexibility in case of illness. It might also include additional incentives to attract more TFWs to come and work in our food sector. The COVID-19 pandemic does not change the reality that the security and affordability of Canada’s food supply system relies on producers having greater access to imported labour, not less.
The report can be found online at www.policyschool.ca/publications/.
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