Packers slow production citing worker shortage

(Photo courtesy Canada Beef Inc.)

Winnipeg | Reuters — Canadian meat packers are short hundreds of workers, forcing plants to run at well below full capacity, the Canadian Meat Council said Monday.

Plants are operating at 77 per cent of capacity on average, based on a survey by the industry group, resulting in more Canadian cattle and hogs are being shipped to the U.S. for slaughter. Canada is the world’s third-largest pork exporter and seventh-biggest shipper of beef and veal.

Despite heavy recruitment by packers, not enough Canadians want to work in packing plants that are often located in rural areas and require physically demanding labour, said Ron Davidson, spokesman for the meat council, whose members include Cargill, Maple Leaf Foods, JBS Food Canada and Olymel. Immigration programs don’t provide enough workers either, he said.

Processors have instead relied on Canada’s temporary foreign worker program to fill jobs, but it has become more difficult in the past year to gain government approval for those workers as well, Davidson said.

“We’ve got plants trying to keep their doors open,” he said.

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Canadian plants already pay workers more than packers in the U.S. do, and need the government to ensure they can find enough temporary workers after Ottawa makes changes to the program, Davidson said.

Temporary foreign workers have become one of the top issues facing the government because of stories of foreign workers displacing Canadians at some McDonald’s restaurants, complaints from Canadians unable to find jobs, and word of some guest workers being mistreated by their bosses.

The government will announce changes to the program within weeks, said Alexandra Fortier, spokeswoman for Employment Minister Jason Kenney.

“Our government will continue to pursue significant reforms to the temporary foreign worker program to ensure that employers make greater efforts to recruit and train Canadians and that it is only used as a last and limited resort when Canadians are not available,” she said.

Pork producer Olymel has so far avoided production cuts due to a worker shortage but has “serious concerns for the future depending on the decisions the federal government will take,” spokesman Richard Vigneault said.

Cargill spokeswoman Brigitte Burgoyne said the company, which has two major Canadian beef plants, shares the meat council’s concerns. Representatives for Maple Leaf and JBS could not immediately be reached.

— Rod Nickel is a Reuters correspondent based in Winnipeg.



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