Thank you, Madam Chair and committee members, for the opportunity to speak to you here today.
My name is Chris van den Heuvel. I'm the second vice-president for the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. We're Canada's largest general farm organization, representing 200,000 Canadian farm families from coast to coast to coast. I run a mixed dairy and beef operation in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. As mentioned, I'm also joined by Scott Ross, assistant executive director at CFA.
I'd like to start by thanking the committee for inviting farm organizations to speak on the temporary foreign worker program and to thank the officials and policy-makers who have taken the critical steps to ensure continued access to essential international farm and food workers throughout this COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2017 the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council found 16,500 on-farm vacancies costing the sector $2.9 billion in lost sales. These vacancies existed despite 60,000 foreign workers entering Canada. By 2029, they forecast 123,000 more jobs than the domestic labour force is expected to fill. For an agri-food sector otherwise primed to drive Canada's economic recovery, already providing 12% of Canada's employment and $143 billion in GDP, these labour constraints require a holistic agri-food labour and automation strategy.
While we see some opportunity through immigration pilots and access to permanent residencies, a lack of awareness on issues relating to educational criteria continue to limit access for farm and food workers alike. At the same time, the pandemic has emphasized the immediate importance of foreign workers to Canadian agriculture, with nearly two in five agricultural employers experiencing labour shortages at a time when millions of Canadians were displaced from their employment.
When it comes to LMIAs, we have seen significant improvements in processing over the past few years, and forums for dialogue between the departments involved and employer associations such as the service delivery working group co-chaired by CFA and Service Canada have been critical in identifying opportunities to reduce administrative burden while enhancing program rigour. However, the efforts of organizations like FARMS, WALI, UPA and FERME have also been critical in developing the standards, arranging logistics and communicating with employers and governments.
Throughout COVID-19, the importance of these organizations cannot be overstated. These groups work with thousands of employers to keep them on top of rapidly changing program realities that often differ from region to region. They have taken on immense challenges while dealing with constant uncertainty, frustrated employers and lack of information.
I would like to express our gratitude for their ongoing efforts, and we would recommend empowering them as partners through advance notice on program changes and travel restrictions. This would avoid significant confusion, delays and added cost as employers try to make sense of this ever-evolving program.
More generally, I would note that the online LMIA application portal is working well, but needs to ensure that those same organizations can continue to provide producers with support in getting the right documentation and streamlining processing for all involved. At this time, producers find far more delays in work permit approval and renewal processing than the LMIAs themselves, with undue delays also arising where communication is required between government departments.
We recommend clear work permit processing service standards and more robust information sharing between IRCC and Service Canada to avoid costly and undue delays.
Similarly, producers are also facing new stress and confusion due to overlapping inspections across multiple orders of government. Integrity audits can halt LMIA processing, which isn't always communicated clearly to employers, who at this point are not always clear on who was inspecting them or why. This leaves them in limbo as the production season approaches, and they're waiting on approval of what are truly essential workers. We support a strong inspection regime, but it must be founded on greater coordination and communication between all involved.
Under COVID-19, farmers continue to see increased costs for transportation, housing and PPE, which can be far greater for those without a nearby port of entry. The mandatory isolation support program certainly helps, but as it stands, farmers are bearing significant added costs for their efforts. The Switch Health system for day 10 testing is exacerbating this situation, causing delays that leave workers in mandatory quarantine isolation for extended periods, posing mental health challenges and adding costs. The system appears to be overwhelmed, and urgent reforms are needed to allow farmers to send results to third-party labs.
In conclusion, I would draw your attention to—