Redesign - Labour

At this stage, the food system is being redesigned around agro-ecological theory and the principles of health promotion (see MacRae & TFPC, 1999) and the goals set out by MacRae (2011) are in the course of being achieved. Firms employ strongly flourishing (sustainable) business models (see Upward, 2013), rooted in an economy designed around ecological limits (see, for example, Victor, 2009).

Demand - supply coordination (DSC)

Reduced work time for full employment

Demand - supply coordination (DSC)

There are labour dimensions to the DSC system proposed under Goal 2. The labour market will not properly allocate labour to key food system functions, especially as we shift to a health-promoting and sustainable system. DSC would be designed to deliver multiple objectives: productivity, more equitable income distribution,  profit/revenue for  employers, a  living wage for workers, and jobs for the unemployed.(especially middle jobs - retail trade and restaurant managers; administrative supervisors; whole-sale trade sales representatives; skilled tradespeople; manufacturing supervisors and various machine operators, Zizys, 2011:62).

A partial model of this approach can be discerned in the Government of Ontario’s attempts to coordinate demand and supply within the regulated health professions. HealthForce Ontario,  Ontario’s Health Human Resource (HHR) Strategy, attempts to project health needs and then design HR recruitment, retention and training to meet those needs. As such, the program acknowledges that previous HR planning was supply-side driven and inadequate. As part of these efforts, they engage recruitment and regional advisors to help identify needs, define positions and recruit for them.  HealthForce also coordinates the filling of temporary gaps, especially in more isolated and poorly served regions.  They run a needs-based physician simulation model that projects health status by local health areas and then identifies needs among a range of physician specialties.  The model then contrasts need against supply considerations and makes recommendations accordingly.  

The efficiency and substitution initiatives set the stage for food system demand-supply coordination, but it may also be that regulatory interventions are required to accelerate the shift to a new approach. For this, we take inspiration from state interventions in the labour market during WWII, a period when the state could not rely on the wage and price system to properly train or allocate labour to the most important functions (see Britnell and Fowke, 1962 and Goal 2), and consequently chose to aggressively intervene in labour markets. Obviously, the underlying conditions that caused failure in the wage and price system are not the same as they will be when constructing a sustainable and health – promoting food system, but the processes, structures and regulations put in place to address the failures hold lessons for the future.

With the outbreak of WWII, Canada faced significant labour difficulties for both manufacturing and agriculture. Much “surplus” farm labour went to war or to the war industries. Canada had just come through the Depression, a period of high unemployment in which many farm people stayed home because there was no work elsewhere. For the first few war years, this surplus allowed the market to allocate labour relatively efficiently. But shortages of farm labour started showing up in 1941 that affected food production. Governments decided that relying on the market would no longer suffice, and the federal government had power under the War Measures Act to take control of labour from the provinces.  A series of Orders-in-Council were passed in March 1942 that constituted a comprehensive approach to the control of labour. The key aspect of these orders for agriculture was that farm labour could not move into other occupations.  Agricultural workers could either join the military or hold temporary employment outside of agriculture if it did not interfere with their agricultural duties and a permit was obtained from the local Selective Service officer.

The federal government passed the Vocational Training Coordination Act in 1942 to fund a variety of programs for servicemen, veterans, the unemployed, and supervisors in industry as a way to improve skills in manufacturing. The programs included high school vocational courses and apprenticeships. The federal government established conditions for provincial eligibility in the program. The Vocational Schools Assistance Agreement of 1945 was more exacting, in that it provided cost-shared assistance to create provincial high schools offering both vocational and academic programs (Lyons et al., 1991).  Here, once again, we see federal intervention to provide co-ordination across the country in an area of provincial jurisdiction.

The other issue was moving farm and processing labour to the right places.  Under the War Measures and National Resources Mobilization Acts, the minister of labour was empowered to enter into agreements with each province to recruit agricultural labour and transport it to the needed places. The federal government paid for transport to different provinces and shared costs within a province around recruitment and transport. They established a federal-provincial committee on farm labour. They formulated recruitment and placement programs specific to each province and recruited farm labour to other tasks when not required on farms. Government established a base minimum price through processors, to compensate for increased farm labour costs associated with the decline in labour surpluses.

Movement of large groups across provincial borders started in the fall of 1942. Five thousand farm workers and students went from the east to the west by special trains to help with the grain harvest. The labour situation was also complicated by a shortage of equipment. Much of it had been imported from the US prior to the war, but the Americans were limiting production to supply their war effort. Canada also restricted implement production by setting quotas and controlling access to credit for purchases. Quotas were removed in mid 1945. Consequently, movement of equipment and people from the US and equipment within Canada was organized to complement movement of internal domestic labour.  As part of this, governments had to develop production priorities, placing livestock and livestock products ahead of cereals, vegetables and fruit because of their value for the war.

Other supplementary measures included granting Farm Duty leaves to military personnel so they could work on their farm at critical moments. The local Selective Service officers were to direct discharged and rejected soldiers to agriculture and it became a compulsory measure in late 1943 when agriculture was added as a sector to the existing regulations.  Conscientious objectors were also directed to agriculture from the Alternative Service Camps. Males in less essential sectors were required to report to Selective Service offices and sent back to their farms. Treaty Aboriginal people were encouraged to take work on farms during harvest periods. Many campaigns asked urban people to help during planting and harvest. Many high school and university women were recruited for fruit picking.

Clearly, this level of intervention would only be tolerated in a crisis. There is certainly an urgency to the problems of labour in the food system, but the efficiency and substitution strategies, if enacted, are designed to progressively integrate improvements. Important lessons from WWII could cement these improvements at the redesign stage:

Take strong positions that direct the provinces and local regions on labour allocations

As in WWII, the labour challenges are national in scale, but with local and regional variations. The COVID emergency exposed many labour challenges, particularly in meat processing and fruit and vegetable production.  The fruit harvest was significantly compromised in the Okanagan Valley of BC because of a shorted of TFWs and a reduced summer time migration of young farm workers from Quebec that would normally have contributed significantly to harvest (Fries, 2020).  That such a migration exists reveals the potential of a strategic intervention. A co-ordinated national response is required with the federal government playing an essential role. Having food system sectoral councils in each province and a national coordinating council (as discussed in the substitution stage) is essential[1], but in addition to those structures, regulations can facilitate the movement of people to underrepresented positions. The War Measures Act is not a suitable vehicle for the design of such regulations, but the existing Emergencies Act is a possible mechanism if new legislation was deemed excessive (the federal government has considered using it during the COVID emergency and some provinces have used their Emergencies legislation (see Goal 2, Emergencies). Using this mechanism depends on governments recognizing that food system change is urgent to address human health and environmental threats and that addressing labour challenges within this framework is critical. This has happened in the past, with phenomena that might not immediately be considered an emergency, for example, the Supreme Court deemed the Anti-Inflation Act of 1975 constitutional, saying that federal government had the right to create new legislation to deal with a national emergency, in this case, inflation[2].  See the Emergencies Act and Orders-in-Council for detailed proposals on changes.

Recognize the centrality of food in societal processes and change regulations to reflect that importance

As the labour problems worsened during WWII, the federal government added agriculture to existing regulations covering the allocation of essential goods and services. Agricultural work, for example, was added to the list of professions from which people could not move to other occupations.

The term essential services is now associated with restrictions on the right to strike. In this context, however, it is more useful to think of essential services as those that should be favoured with extra supports and incentives to assure a robust workforce in the designated area. The Emergency Act provisions (d) and (e) above provide the authorization for such supports and incentives.

Price setting to assure adequate wages is a legitimate intervention

Food price setting, both ceilings and floors, at the farm, processor and consumer levels was widespread during WWII, lead by the Wartime Prices and Trade Board (WPTB) (see also Mosby, 2014) and served multiple purposes, including assuring that farmers and firms were compensated for extra labour costs. At present, labour costs are accounted for in the cost of production formulas employed by the supply managed commodities, but this reflects only a limited number of commodities.  A close study of WPTB documents provides detailed lessons on construction of price setting regulations, and could again be authorized by provisions in the Emergency Act.

Urban people can be much more involved in food system work

WWII witnessed a significant migration of rural residents to urban areas, a pool of people with significant skills in food production, processing and preparation. Many urban people participated in planting and harvest on farms, cultivated Victory Gardens, modified their diets to address shortages and rationing, and extensively preserved food (see also Mosby, 2014). Admittedly, the deskilling of the population creates new challenges relative to WWII (Jaffe and Gertler, 2006), but the rise of urban foodie culture, the expansion of urban resident interest in gardening and commercial food production (see MacRae et al. 2010), and new policy interventions from municipal governments to support urban food production, processing and distribution (see MacRae and Donahue, 2013) all speak to the possibilities.  However, as with WWII, such urban engagement must be coordinated with wider food system requirements. Among large urban areas, Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal are all well placed to participate in a wider, joined up strategy and their involvement with food sector councils will be important, but ultimately the federal government may have to use regulatory authorities under the Emergency Act to facilitate such collaboration.

Reduced work time for full employment (see Goal 9)

A key demand – side driver is full employment. What should be married with this new approach to demand – supply coordination is a new vision of work as reflected by analysts such as O’Hara (1993) and Hayden (1999) who both argue for work sharing strategies that result in higher overall employment levels, better productivity, better use of social and economic infrastructure, and better population health. Recent real world international examples confirm such possibilities if programs are well designed (cf. Badelt, 2021). Although their proposals are not identical, broadly speaking, their implementation plans involve significant regulatory changes in the labour area, including changing the hours of work,  the nature of overtime and how payroll taxes are calculated.  In their view, the net economic impacts of such changes are at least neutral if not positive because of the savings generated in health care and environmental costs.


[1] Note that during WWII, there were Dominion – Provincial Committees on Farm Labour in each province (Britnell & Fowke, 1962:180).

[2] Anti-inflation Act.  The Canadian Encyclopedia.