Labour shortage hits farmers hard

Foreign workers common on Saskatchewan farms

Weyburn Review
September 18, 2013 01:00 AM

As the average size of farms in Saskatchewan has grown, more and more farmers are bringing in outside help. Some are looking as far as other countries.

"We're always looking for help that is capable," said Deana Mainil of her and her husband, Dale's, farm. The Mainils have about five staff year round, but that number increases to 15 during busy times such as seeding and harvesting and when the Mainils can't find the staff locally, they look even further.

"Dale and Davin (their son) are constantly skyping and looking for good employees," said Mainil. The Mainils use a program called the International Rural Exchange which helps match young agricultural workers in other nations with farmers looking for staff. In the last three years, they've hired staff from the Philippines, the Ukraine, Denmark, India, Switzerland and South Africa and eastern provinces when possible.

"We joke around here about this being the UN," said Mainil with a chuckle. She said she has heard people complaining about those who bring in foreign workers when there are Canadians looking for work, but Mainil said, in their experience, not many of those unemployed Canadians are willing to move and live in Saskatchewan or able to do the work. "We need the labour, so what are you going to do?"

Statistics Canada reports that in the five years from 2006 to 2011, the average farm in Canada increased in size by nearly seven per cent, but in Saskatchewan, the average farm increased in size by 15.1 per cent. That was the largest increase in the country and for the first time, StatsCan collected statistics on paid labour in the agriculture industry in 2011. More than one third of farms, 34 per cent, reported using paid labour in their operations, and that number has likely grown.

"A good, competent worker can combine a half section of canola in one day," said Dale Paslawski, who farms near Cedoux, and speaks with farmers all over southeastern Saskatchewan. "That's $100,000 worth of canola."

"Some farmers are looking at bringing guys in from Mexico," said Paslawski and added that Australian workers are becoming more common on Saskatchewan farms. His brother-in-law, Daryl Maurer, has hired a man from Australia.

Paslawski said bringing in foreign workers can be a good solution but it can have it's own problems also.

"There can be some language and some safety barriers," said Paslawski, who said some of the workers are not familiar with Occupational Health and Safety Standards. He also said cultural discrepancies may need to be overcome and that there is lots of paperwork involved to bring workers into the country.

The language barrier is John Wilgenbusch's biggest concern with hiring abroad, but he is still looking to hire some of his first foreign farm workers, especially those from other English-speaking countries.

"I can't get anybody around here," said Wilgenbusch. "We're looking all the time and we're looking for them anyplace we can find them."He said part of the problem is the need for good, competent workers, especially with technological advances in the agriculture industry.

"I can't just put any fool in there that doesn't know what he's doing," said Wilgenbusch, but said he would be happy to teach a young, ambitious worker. Most of the farm labourers he has seen are retired farmers themselves.

Mainil, Wilgenbusch and Paslawski attribute the need for foreign workers in the agriculture industry to the oil boom in Saskatchewan.

"Wages haven't kept pace with the oil industry and lots of guys don't want to work in agriculture," said Paslawski who also works in the oil industry.

"We can't compare to the oil field and what they can pay," said Mainil. "A lot of young kids will see the money and go to that."

Wilgenbusch said he would love to hire locally, but can't compete with the oilfield wages, which often start around $30 an hour, about double what the starting wage a brand new farm labourer would make. He also thinks a lot of people are looking for nine-to-five style work and that is incompatible with the agriculture industry.

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