“Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment,” declares the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But what if you can’t get enough people to work in your industry?
That’s exactly what rural manufacturers and farmers in southwestern Ontario are facing right now. You could plaster this part of the province with big help wanted signs along fields and small town streets and still be short of workers. There are plenty of jobs, dozens of people have told me over the past few months, and not enough people to fill them.
As a result, businesses have slowed production or failed to expand. According to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council farmers across the country have lost $1.5 billion due to a lack of available workers.
The problem with labour shortages is complicated. There are fewer small family farms and fewer young people in rural Canada than 20 years ago. Many young people have moved to the city and remained there. Farm sizes are generally expanding, with large operators buying smaller family farms, leading to fewer farm operators than in the past.
What’s more, family sizes are generally shrinking. In my parents’ generation, having four or more children wasn’t uncommon. Growing up on a farm meant my three siblings and I were all introduced to haying, milking, picking eggs and driving tractors by the time we were teenagers – skills that we could share with our neighbours if they needed an extra hand. Today, families with four children are a rarity, meaning there is a smaller pool of neighbourhood help available.
For those people who are available, from nearby towns or cities, there are often hurdles. Rural Ontario is plagued by a lack of public transit and available housing that fits within an employee’s price range. Many of the jobs available pay wages that range from $14 to $22 an hour. In order to encourage more people to work in rural Ontario, housing and transportation options must be considered when rural businesses try to attract new employees, said Chris Watson, an economic development officer for Huron County.
When I spoke to Debra Hauer from the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council, she stated there were three solutions to rural Ontario’s labour shortages: bring in more workers from other countries, use technology to do tasks that could be automated and give a makeover to the image urban and semi-urbanites have of agriculture.
There is significant momentum in all three of Hauer’s suggestions.
Dairy farmers like Maria and Henk Pastink of Bruce County have met the challenge of getting help for milking 600 cows by employing workers from India with farm experience. Manufacturers like General Coach Canada in Hensall have begun hiring refugees to fill general labourer positions, a move they encourage other manufacturers to follow.
Further away, an aggressive campaign in Manitoba is bringing new arrivals to small towns in an effort revive rural economies. Morten, Manitoba, a town of about 8,500, is being touted as a success. There, new arrivals to Canada are guaranteed a job in manufacturing, cabinet making, welding, sewing and childcare if they have two years of experience working in these areas in their home country. According to the town’s immigration website, the programme stipulates that to qualify, people must be between the ages of 21 and 45, not have other family members elsewhere in Canada, have post-secondary education and lived in a rural area previously. Employers in Morden told the CBC that they are bringing about 50 families a year to their community, and that the employees are key to keeping rural businesses running.
Technology, too, is increasingly being turned to, even when farmers have to take out loans to afford high-tech machinery. Automation has already revolutionized feeding on pig, dairy and chicken farms. The next wave of technology is available and can replace some manual labour jobs. Still, this technology comes with requirements and needs technological know-how. Farmers of the future must know how to manipulate technology and read data to ensure their farms meet their full productive potential.
And then there’s the makeover part – a drive to shift the image of farmers as hicks from the country to your friendly food producer who is a tech guru, concerned about animal welfare and in touch with the earth. Significant work to rebrand the various ag sectors has been underway by various associations for several years and must continue.
Derek Johnstone, of the United Food and Commercial Workers union that represents thousands of agricultural workers across Canada, says there is room for improvement.
A joint approach from the national and provincial governments, businesses, farm unions and associations and other stakeholders is needed to change the perception of farms, Johnstone says. Training workers to understand health and safety protection is key to revitalizing the image, Johnstone added.
Hauer agrees that more on-the-farm training with workers who are unskilled needs to occur in order to cultivate a better understanding of farm work. She says farmers need to focus on keeping employees who, “enjoy working with animals, being outside and being autonomous” through human resource management. She says her organization helps farmers develop human resource skills and has material available on their website https://cahrc-ccrha.ca/
One thing is certain – the status quo cannot remain if rural Ontario wants to flourish economically. Labour shortages have to be addressed through adaption and change. ◊