Are foreign workers the answer to Alberta’s ag worker shortage?
By Tim Kalinowski
With Canadian farm workers in short supply, many in the Alberta agriculture industry have increasingly turned to foreign workers to help address their needs.
But even then, says Warren Green, co-owner of Global Farm & Ranch.com– which specializes in helping farmers, ranchers and agricultural business owners bring in foreign workers– there is no silver bullet.
“When I get a guy to phone me, I ask them are you a good guy to work for?” he says. “Because I tell them, you know what, these people don’t have to work for you. There is really an underground network when you come to Canada. If you are coming out of the Ukraine or South Africa or Mexico, these people all talk.
“If they find out they are not being treated fair, and they are a good worker, they will have no problem changing their work permit to go work for a a good employer. They are not stuck, and these people are smart, because nobody will work for a bad employer for long. They will leave them. They know they are in demand.
“That farmer will always have a labour problem,” Green concludes, “until he gets smarter, or he figures he is going to do it until he drops.”
Green says fortunately the vast majority of farmers, ranchers and business owners he works with realize that, and understand they have to meet certain standards to bring guys in.
“The federal government sets a low, medium and high wage range for each area of the country; so they have done their research,” he explains. “So you cannot pay a foreign worker less than a Canadian.
“The government audits people who have an approval to hire foreign workers; so that’s pretty easy to do. I just got to see all your bank records and all your payroll stubs, and you have to meet that requirement to hire a foreign worker.
“A farm supervisor or a general farm worker in Alberta, for the most part, makes anywhere from $22-$27 per hour. And if you got a Class 1 or are mechanical, you are making even more money.”
Green says agriculture is an attractive business for foreign workers looking for the easiest path toward immigration they can find to Canada.
“If you are coming out of a foreign country, and you don’t know anything about Canada, your ultimate goal is to get permanent resident visas,” Green explains. “You want to come to a new country and start over. You might consider where am I going to get a work permit? And then you are going to look where am I going to have a path to immigration? And that will be a big determining factor if you have done your homework, and you’ve got somebody working for you about where should I go? And what province should I go to?”
He says farmers also have specific needs many of these foreign workers can fill for them.
“You are really looking for three things if you are bringing a guy on a grain farm,” Green explains. “You are looking for a guy, number one, who can operate equipment. Number two who has some pretty good mechanical skills.
“And, if you are lucky, someone who has a Class 1 and can exchange it in the province you are residing in. That is the perfect candidate.”
So there is a lot of mutual interest between potential employers and employees if those basic elements are checked off and accounted for. However, Green warns, it rarely goes that perfectly in the game of international farm-worker matchmaking.
“The problem now we’re having in the agricultural industry is Class 1 licence, because it’s a mess,” he admits. “I understand they got to fix it, but I don’t know if they know how to fix it. Because in some provinces, if you have a licence in a certain country, you can exchange it. Other provinces you can’t.
“In some provinces you can come under an agricultural stream, and have a licence, and use it— in other ones you can’t. There is no logic to it.”
Alberta is losing ground to other provinces on this front, confirms Green.
“Alberta is probably on the bottom end for exchanges,” he states. “If you are in Saskatchewan or Manitoba, if you had what they call a commercial driver’s licence in the States, you can exchange it as long as you have one or two years experience.
“In Alberta, you can’t. You have to go through the whole MELT (Mandatory Entry Level Training) process, and it will probably cost you anywhere from 121 hours and $8,000-$10,000 to get a licence. The danger is for a farm operator is if I get you your licence, how do I know you are going to stay with me? There’s a lot of different risks there.”
Alberta is also lagging on other fronts, putting them behind in the race, says Green.
“(As a foreign worker) you might be a great farmer, but you don’t have your Grade 12 equivalent,” he explains. “You can’t immigrate to Alberta, but guess what? You can in Saskatchewan. So where do you think you’re going to go? And that’s just one issue.”
Green says this is one of many strange contradictions which exist in Alberta which ultimately makes it less attractive to come work on a farm in this province compared to some others.
“People don’t come if it’s hard,” he states. “The paperwork in certain sectors can really deter bringing in foreign workers. I think any recruiter would be looking at Alberta as one of the last choices.”
That does not stop Alberta farmers, ranchers and ag-business people from coming to him, says Green, to get help putting in their applications to bring in foreign workers. A process which can take as little as five weeks if the paperwork is done correctly, he says, and the workers you are looking for are from non-visa countries. It can take up to six months, states Green, if those workers you want come from visa-required countries; so the timing of your application is important.
Green says even in Alberta, with its regulatory challenges, more and more foreign workers are coming in to find full time employment on the province’s farms.
“Our (recruitment) business is growing in all parts of the country,” confirms Green. “I think the numbers of foreign workers in agriculture have been increasing.”