Due to the labor dispute at Exceldor, Quebec risks experiencing a shortage of chicken. While retail traders remain calm, there is panic in the restaurant business. Retailers have options. They can sell turkey or other sources of protein. For restaurants, if your expertise is chicken, like St-Hubert or Chez Benny, the strike is a real nightmare if it exceeds a week.
Worse yet, hundreds of thousands of chickens have already been euthanized since the start of the conflict. Euthanizing chickens with gas is taboo in the industry, and exact numbers are always difficult to get. These are chickens produced for nothing, to be thrown in the trash. The number could exceed one million within a few days. The strict rules in the industry mean that there are hardly any other options. Due to supply management in the poultry sector, a system that limits production and trade between provinces, closing a plant often leads to euthanasia. This is what happened during the pandemic with the closure of a few factories in Quebec and elsewhere.
On the other hand, it is difficult not to sympathize with the workers. The working conditions are extremely difficult. Slaughterhouses are violent, humid, noisy places and most tasks require repetitive physical effort. Workers have rights and, with the labor shortage and the impact of the pandemic, the union is taking advantage. Why not. The union’s demands are quite reasonable. Unfortunately, there will surely be more labor disputes in the sector in the coming months. So get ready.
In terms of labor, the agri-food sector is really at a crossroads. Quebecers were recently shocked by the broadcast of a report made by Serres Demers on the accommodation conditions of workers coming from abroad. The accommodations were substandard and really awful. The president of Serres Demers has of course offered his apologies, but the problem is still there. And the situation at Serres Demers is unfortunately not an isolated case. There are other equally abominable cases elsewhere in Canada.
However, the problem is not just inadequate wages or unacceptable working conditions. The challenge is much deeper than that. Even if, for example, Exceldor would offer the 40% 3-year pay increase demanded by the union, most of us would still refuse to work under such conditions. And if housing was better at Serres Demers, the majority of Canadians and Quebecers would continue to flee these jobs. Let’s be honest.
To prevent these closures and management issues, the easy solution is to label the agri-food industry as an essential service, and not just at the retail level. Since the agrifood sector is a question of food autonomy, the ultimate objective is to offer local products at an affordable price. Moreover, this is the objective for all economies in the West. But other countries are taking an entirely different approach.
Elsewhere in the West, agrifood systems are capitalizing at an astounding rate. In countries like Holland or Denmark, and even the United States, process automation and the adoption of artificial intelligence have become priorities for the industry, especially since the start of the pandemic. Public and private investments ensure that the sector is no longer also at risk of disruption. Indeed, private investors often come from sectors that have nothing to do with agriculture. They come with new ideas, a different philosophy. Changes often lead to a better paid workforce and the talent needed to manage these operations is usually more sophisticated. These are jobs that will be of more interest to domestic workers.
In short, our dependence on labor has become a real problem for the food industry. This is what the events at Serres Demers and the strike at Exceldor tell us. We will have to think about betting on new modern models. But to do so requires capital and governments cannot do everything. Investors will have to be interested, especially those who have nothing to do with agriculture.