Canada cut foreign workers and hobbled its meat industry


For a glimpse at how Donald Trump’s “America first” approach to immigrants may affect the meat industry in the U.S. — the world’s largest beef producer — look no further than across the northern border to Canada.

Three years after former Prime Minister Stephen Harper tightened restrictions on foreign workers to force employers to hire more Canadians, processors from British Columbia to Nova Scotia say the move compounded a labor shortage from which they have not recovered. The Canadian Meat Council estimates the industry has 1,650 vacancies at 19 rural abattoirs, or 9 percent of total employment at those facilities.

Carving up carcasses and packaging meat is messy, physically demanding work. And while workers get health and other benefits, the starting pay is below the national average. That’s why the $18.4 billion Canadian industry — like its neighbor in the U.S. — has grown increasingly dependent on foreign labor. Maple Leaf Foods said last year it was seeking to hire Syrian refugees to fill job shortages.

“We’ll take anybody that is willing to work,” said Ron Davidson, director of government and media relations at the Ottawa-based meat council, which represents about 50 companies including Maple Leaf, Olymel SEC and the Canadian units of Cargill and JBS. “We’re being suffocated. If you can’t get workers at the front end of the system, everybody pays the price.”

More severe measures proposed by Trump to limit foreign workers might be just as disruptive. U.S. plants, including pork and poultry facilities, already face labor shortages. Immigrant workers account for 35 percent of the 441,000 animal slaughtering and processing jobs, according to 2015 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Trump has pledged to protect manufacturing jobs by ditching what he considers unfair trade deals, pressuring companies not to make products outside the U.S., and building a wall on the Mexican border to keep out undocumented workers. Citing a terror risk, he banned visitors from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen. The restriction was overturned by an appellate court panel last week, but the president vowed to impose a new ban and make good on his promises to limit foreign workers.

Such moves aren’t likely to create more jobs for Americans in U.S. meat plants, according to David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University in Ames. He estimates three-quarters of the workers at processing plants in Iowa, the largest pork-producing state, are immigrants, mostly from Mexico. Domestic workers probably won’t take those jobs, he said.

“It’s damn hard work,” Swenson said. “Historically, they have depended on those folks.”

That was the experience in Canada, which is also a major meat exporter and employs about 66,000 people. Processing plants offer full health and dental benefits, but hourly wages start at $9.90-$14.50, below the national average for natural-resource and agricultural workers of about C$25.75, government data show. That’s made it difficult to use only Canadian workers.

“We are really concerned going forward how we’re going to be able to fill our positions,” said Claude Vielfaure, president of HyLife Ltd., a Manitoba-based pork processor that exports C$650 million of meat annually to countries including the U.S., China and Mexico. “If we don’t have the people, we’re just not going to grow, and we’re going to fall behind.”

Under a Canadian government program, employers can hire foreign nationals to fill jobs not being taken by citizens or immigrants.

HyLife obtained a permit to bring workers to its processing plant in Neepawa, Manitoba, before the government overhauled its temporary foreign workers program and has worked aggressively to recruit and retain staff, Vielfaure said. The company still may face limits on growth because it can’t produce specialty or higher-value cuts without enough employees, he said.

The new Liberal government in Canada, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said it may drop some of the restrictions and create a path to permanent residency, which should ease the shortages for the meat industry. A new federal budget is due in coming weeks.

“We know that the previous government’s approach to the program wasn’t working, and we’ve already begun rolling out a plan to make this program work for workers, for businesses, and for the Canadian economy,” said Jean-Bruno Villeneuve, the press secretary for the Office of the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour.

For now, Canada’s meat industry says its labor shortage will get even worse if its competitors in the U.S. are hit with more restrictive rules on using foreign workers, as Trump has proposed. American companies that can’t hire Somalis or Mexicans may try to move some processing capacity to Canada.

“They will be forced to go where they can find workers,” the meat council’s Davidson said, adding that animal welfare could be at risk if Canadian plants can’t handle the overflow.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Security footage depicting an armed robbery at Buds Garage in Everett on Tuesday, Jan.18, 2022. (Contributed photo)
Everett pot shop robbed twice; others targeted in recent months

Armed robbers have hit Buds Garage off Everett Avenue twice since December.

Cassandra Lopez-Shaw
Snohomish County judge accused of ‘needlessly’ exposing staff to COVID

Adam Cornell argues the incident reinforces a need to suspend jury trials, as omicron wreaks havoc.

A SWAT team responds during an 8-hour standoff between police and a man brandishing a knife at a home in south Edmonds on Sunday night. (Edmonds Police Department)
Edmonds man barricaded in house arrested after 8-hour standoff

Police said he was brandishing a knife and threatening “homicidal violence” on his family.

Connie L. Bigelow at her store Miniatures & More in Edmonds on Tuesday. (Janice Podsada / The Herald)
Woman who lit her own Edmonds doll store on fire gets house arrest

Connie Bigelow, 54, was sentenced Friday in federal court for lighting her business on fire to collect insurance money.

The Washington National Guard arrived Friday at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett to help with a surge of COVID-19 cases at the hospital. (Providence) 20220121
State offers free home tests; National Guard arrives in Everett

Supply is limited at a new online portal, but Washingtonians can now order five free rapid COVID tests.

A rendering of the Compass Health Broadway Campus Redevelopment looks southwest at the building. The facility is planned for 82,000 square feet with a behavioral health clinic with a 16-bed inpatient center and a 16-bed crisis triage center. (Ankrom Moisan Architects)
Demolition eyed in spring for Compass Health Broadway campus

The Everett-based behavioral health care provider wants to replace the 1920-built Bailey Center with a modern facility.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Lake Stevens in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Lake Stevens proposes cutting ties with Sno-Isle Libraries

Sno-Isle’s director called the move a “drastic and unnecessary action to privatize our shared public library.”

A car drives by flowers placed at a memorial for two pedestrians killed at the corner of 204th Street NE and Highway 9 on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
$500K bail for driver accused of killing 2 Arlington pedestrians

Elliott Bagley, 28, told an officer he’d had a couple beers before the crash Thursday, according to police.

A car drives by Everett Station where Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin's proposal for its ARPA funds includes funding a child care center at station. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald) 20211118
Billionaire Bezos wants to bring free preschool to Everett

The Amazon founder’s program would be housed at Everett Station. Admission would be determined by lottery.

Most Read