Labour force development


Why is labour force development so poor?

Systemic racism in Canadian food system labour markets




Financing the transition


The Canadian food system is facing significant labour challenges and governments have not put forward a comprehensive plan to address them. These long standing vulnerabilities have been made more apparent during COVID-19 (cf. Black et al., 2020). Although the Temporary Foreign Worker programs have received the most attention of late, understandable given their long standing inequities, in fact most sectors of the food system are facing labour difficulties. Such difficulties provoked the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC), an organization devoted to human resource needs in the agrifood sector with membership from most of the main general farm and many related organizations, to issue a National Labour Action Plan in late 2013 (Labour Task Force, 2013; and see 2015 Update). There was limited response to the 2013 plan from the federal government for over a year (Arnason, 2014), followed by changes to the rules of TFW programs after some scandals emerged in the press (see Efficiency solutions).  While a start addressing a complex topic, the CAHRC plan has significant limitations, especially if the challenges are framed in the context of creating a national joined up food policy.  The dilemma, thus, is two-fold. First, Canada does not have a coherent framework and strategy even for the current food system and second, has even less in place to develop a labour force consistent with a new approach. A labour force is typically considered to be the employed (whether salaried or self employed) plus the unemployed but interested in working. While highlighting the deficiencies of current approaches, I propose a labour force development strategy consistent with a joined up food policy.

Labour is fundamental to all the goals of a joined up food policy in that fulfilling work contributes to human health and social engagement, economic viability and, if properly designed, supports the achievement of long term sustainability of the system (see Table). Quality jobs, with good wages, are intimately linked to quality food, in that the drive to suppress wages can be linked to pressures to reduce the quality of ingredients in processed and restaurant foods (Zizys, 2015). Although some progress has been made, the Canadian food system remains far from achieving these goals, in part because of the labour situation.

Joined up food policy goals and labour (adapted from MacRae, 2011)

Goals Labour implications
1. Everyone has the resources to obtain enough food (quality and quantity) to be healthy and the knowledge to optimize nutritional health Work and social assistance (when unable to work) are sufficiently compensated that people can afford a nourishing diet (see also Goal 1, Income Security). Nutritional health improves labour productivity
6. The resources of the food system are distributed in a way that ensures that those who provide the most essential tasks are provided a decent income. In particular, people in rural communities have enough work and income to maintain or improve their life and to care for the rural environment. Currently, the value of the food system is disproportionately captured by capital.  System changes assure an equitable distribution of returns based on the value of work to society, rather than its relationship to returns on capital or to scarcity.
7. Everyone who wants to be involved in determining how the food system works has a chance to participate. Ownership of food system resources is more equitably distributed with more workplace instruments and structures that allow workers, especially women and BIPOC, a greater say in decision making
8. Opportunities are available for creative and fulfilling work. Work is less monotonous than in the current system, with knowledge and management often replacing technology
9. Food creates positive personal and cultural identity and social interaction With food, work is a key dimension of identify and social interaction so changes must create a synchronicity between them. Work is also very gendered and racialized, with limited participation in governance for women and BIPOC.


According to Marx, capitalism is dependent on vulnerable and precarious labour (DuPuis, Harrison, & Goodman, 2011). A joined up food policy approach requires a change in our understanding of labour from an employee compliance, competitiveness and employment flexibility framework to one where employment serves multiple purposes, including social cohesion, health and economic viability. It is not sufficient to just create jobs and put people in them. Rather, the jobs must be of reasonable quality and suitably matched to the person so that they fulfill these broader purposes.

Analyzing labour force development in the food system is made more complicated by policy failures across the economy (see Sharpe & Haddow, 1997; Zizys, 2011).  The food system is of course affected by macro-economic policy issues and solving food system challenges would be made simpler by a better macro approach.  Many of these policy failures are connected to jurisdictional conflicts imposed by the BNA Act of 1867. It is thin on assigning responsibilities for employment and labour.  Old-age pensions, the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP), through amendment, and employment insurance (EI) are federal responsibilities, though EI is partly administered through federal-provincial agreements, and Quebec has its own pension scheme. Both the federal and provincial governments impose income tax.  The Canada Labour Code deals with safety in the workplace for workers under federal jurisdiction (federal government employees, banking, radio and TV broadcasting, inland and maritime navigation and shipping, inland fishing, as well as any form of transportation that crosses provincial boundaries), industrial relations and employment standards. Provincial codes apply to most other employment. Vocational training is a confusing area.  Section 92 (13) of the BNA Act gives authority to the provinces to certify vocational teachers and trades people, but this is only one part of the vocational agenda and the federal government has argued that the constitution gives it authority to intervene on national matters or those of an urgent nature. Because of the divided jurisdiction in agriculture, the provinces were historically more accepting of federal financing of agricultural training and education, than of interventions in other areas (Lyons et al., 1991).

This architecture leaves many empty jurisdictional spaces related to labour force development, and as with many other issues in Canada, the lack of clarity and divided authorities result in battles between governments over suitable responses. These battles have recently played out in negotiations over the federal Canada Job Grant program regarding how and for what training money is to be transferred to the provinces under the EI program (federal jurisdiction). The federal government had been devolving responsibility for vocational training to the provinces, but with this program appears to be taking back some degree of control. The battles are exacerbated by debates about the current surplus in the EI fund and how it should be allocated, be it to benefits and eligibility increases for the unemployed, to payroll tax deductions for business, or to retraining (Curry, 2015).

Employment projections in the food system

Employment in agriculture and general manufacturing (which includes food manufacturing) continues to  decline relative to most other employment sectors, but positively, the agricultural wage gap with other sectors, while significant, has also closed in most provinces relative to earlier periods. Agricultural output / worker has increased (2013 vs. 2003) and is higher than other goods producing sectors, but the capital stock / worker has also increased dramatically (Burt, 2014) which has significant cost implications.  According to Employment and Skills Development Canada (ESDC)’s Canadian Occupational Projection System[1], through 2022, agricultural employment will continue its downward trend even while productivity improves.  Food and beverage manufacturing employment (primarily machine operators and labourers) will stay flat. Fishery employment will also continue to decline, though not as much as in the 2003-2012 period.  The fishery sector has a very high percentage of self-employed and the highest unemployment rate amongst industrial categories.  Overall, the food system labour shortage could reach 114,000 by 2025 (CAHRC, 2017).  Certainly the COVID emergency has introduced many new uncertainties in food system labour markets, especially for food service.

Unfortunately, the Projections lump food wholesaling and retailing into general wholesaling and retail categories, with food wholesaling 13% of the general wholesaling category and food retail at 24% (and does not include general merchandisers selling food), making the data more difficult to interpret. However, in both these general categories, employment is expected to rise slightly.  Accommodation and food service (food and beverage representing two-thirds of the category) is characterized by among the lowest wages across all sectors and the most part-time work, with 41% of workers between 15 and 24[2]. Many positions are precarious. Employment growth is expected to slow, but remain slightly positive. In all food sectors, productivity growth outstrips employment growth as firms attempt to lower their labour costs.  In general, 70% of job growth is projected to occur in high skill (at least college diploma) categories and management. Also significant, two-thirds of upcoming food system retires are in management or high skills. Three-quarters of all position demand will come from retires, only one-quarter from new economic activity.  Food service has low retires because the sector employs many young people filling entry level positions.

As in many sectors of the economy, women and BIPOC are significantly underrepresented in many food system sectors, especially those high paying ones, and over-represented in low paying and precarious employment (cf. Amani, 2019).  In general, whatever labour force gains have been made for women the last few decades appear to have been compromised by COVID-19 (RBC, 2020). Unemployment rates among black, Filipinx, and Arab Canadians remains significantly higher than rates for those who do not identify as indigenous or people of colour (Statistics Canada, 2020). Presumably, these realities are echoed in food system labour force data.

See the Solutions sections for proposals to address these dilemmas.  Further discussion of the situation in the fishery is provided under Goal 5. See Goal 9 for discussion of unpaid work, social reproduction and gendered roles in the food system.

Financing the Transition



[1] Retrieved from:

[2] Retrieved from: