June 26, 2019 / 4:11 PM / 24 days ago

Canadian businesses have a message ahead of the election: We need immigrant workers

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian unemployment is at an all-time low and businesses have a message for politicians ahead of October’s national election: We need immigrant workers so do not make the campaign about keeping them out.

FILE PHOTO: A sign for the Maple Leaf food processing plant is seen in Toronto August 21, 2008. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA)/File Photo

Concern about immigration is on the rise in Canada, according to a recent survey, especially among Conservative voters whose party leads Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in polls ahead of October elections.

Unlike the United States where immigration is viewed by some as a threat, Canadian businesses broadly support Trudeau’s promise to boost the number of immigrants and refugees allowed into the country every year to about 1% of the population.

“We don’t want immigration to be used as a political weapon here as it has been in the United States,” said Goldy Hyder, head of the Business Council of Canada, whose members employ 1.7 million people.

“We agree with the federal government’s targets and we need to meet those targets ... The facts clearly demonstrate that Canada is going to need immigrants to help grow the economy.”

With unemployment at 5.4%, the lowest level since comparable data were first published in 1976, Canada needs workers. A June 25 report showed the country’s farm labor shortage is costing billions and is expected to balloon in the next decade.

Canadian packaged meat producer Maple Leaf Foods Inc.’s pork-processing plant in Brandon, Manitoba, is operating at 80% capacity due to both labor and hog shortages, said Susan Yaeger, head of recruiting and hiring. The hog deficit is a function of not being able to find skilled workers to operate the company’s commercial farms.

“Because of our low unemployment ... there’s of course a dwindling labor pool for us to recruit from and our business is growing,” she said.

Despite this, some politicians are pushing to reduce the number of immigrants and refugees coming to Canada every year.

Two-thirds of Canadians who said they voted for the Conservative Party said there were too many “visible minorities” - an academic way of saying non-white people - in the country, up from 53% in 2015, according to an April Ekos Politics survey.

Under Trudeau, Canada's population growth accelerated to 1.4% in 2018 from 0.8% in 2015, official data show. That compares with U.S. population growth of about 0.6% in the same period. (tmsnrt.rs/2I7z8dv)

The number of new permanent residents climbed by 12% in 2018 to 321,035, the highest yearly figure since 1913, eclipsing the government’s target of 310,000.

For People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier, who split from the Conservatives, that is too much. He wants to cut immigration levels, and so does the Quebec provincial government. While the promise to do so helped put Quebec’s right-leaning government in power last year, Bernier is now polling nationally at about 1%.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who holds a slight lead over Trudeau, so far has acknowledged that “immigration, done right, is good for the economy and good for jobs.”

Companies across Canada are facing the same problem as Maple Leaf Foods. The meat-processing industry alone will need 25,000 workers over the next dozen years, according to a study by the Food Processing Skills Canada.

On Tuesday, the Conference Board of Canada, a research group, said that by 2025 all labor force growth in Canada would be driven by new immigrants.

Slideshow (2 Images)

The Chamber of Commerce in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, wants to further increase the number of workers brought into the country.

“We could do with even more (immigrants),” said Rocco Rossi, head of Ontario’s Chamber. “We have enormous needs.”

(This story corrects headline and first paragraph to “immigrant workers”, not “foreign workers,” because “foreign” implies temporary and not permanent workers)

Reporting by Fergal Smith and Steve Scherer, additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson

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