Global labor shortages in agriculture: Opportunities for expat workers

  • young agricultural worker
Published on 2023-11-08 at 07:00 by Asaël Häzaq
The already vulnerable agricultural industry continues to face labor shortages worldwide. Governments are faced with the challenge of getting local people interested in farming and thus have recourse to the foreign labor force, which is quite challenging.

Labor shortages in agricultural powerhouses

Several countries relying heavily on agriculture are facing labor shortages, and the situation is getting worse. According to the Réussir group, which specializes in professional information on the agricultural and food sectors, the United States, Brazil, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain and China are the leading exporters of agricultural and food products. The US export market alone is worth $US 146 billion. It surpasses the Netherlands ($US 101 billion) and Brazil ($US 85 billion). Other major exporters in the agricultural sector include Indonesia, Canada, India, Italy, Australia and Argentina.

However, there is a growing concern due to the lack of labor to harvest crops and raise ruminants. In fact, the entire industry is affected by a labor shortage. In France, part of the harvest is sacrificed due to a workforce shortage. Farmers are currently not cultivating asparagus as it requires a lot of human resources and opting for less labor-intensive fruits and vegetables. But the financial loss is considerable, not to mention the food and environmental waste. Gherkin cultivation is also being sacrificed for the same reason.

These French regions, where there is a lack of jobs, do not attract locals nor foreign workers. They are also facing a housing shortage. Germany is in a similar situation, relying on 300,000 seasonal farm workers to keep its head above water. According to data from the European Parliament, most workers are from Central and Eastern Europe, with Poland and Romania in the lead. Many of the 150,000 foreign farm workers in Spain are Moroccans.

What are the opportunities for expatriate workers?

In addition to a labor shortage, unfortunately, the agricultural sector has had a negative image, particularly among young people for long. The various jobs in the sector are poorly understood. Professionals of the sector want to show the reality through various communication campaigns, which, in their opinion, is essential to restore the sector's reputation. Speaking the truth also means recruiting foreign professionals for more than one or two seasons.

Working holiday visas: Australia's trump card

For now, Australia has recourse to foreigners to end the season. There is a shortage of seasonal workers in agriculture and some other sectors which have been neglected by locals. The government is targeting holders of working holiday visas and encouraging them to work on farms. Between November 1, 2020, and June 30, 2022, Australia even provided $2,000 in relocation assistance to support these foreigners working in the agricultural sector. Although this assistance is no longer available, the country remains attractive to thousands of young people keen to discover a new profession. For holders of working holiday visas, there is no limit to the number of hours they can work. This flexibility means they can earn between $5,000 and $7,000 a month (for 50 hours' of work at the minimum wage).

Labor shortages in the European Union (EU)

There are several major agricultural regions in the European Union (EU), particularly active in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, some regions of France, some Finnish regions, southern Italy, southern Spain and Portugal. Romania is the European country with the highest proportion of its working population in agriculture, employing 18.5% of them. In 2020, the European agricultural, forestry and fisheries sector employed 9.4 million people or 4.5% of the total workforce. The vast majority of them (4.2%) work in agriculture. 

All these opportunities exist for prospective expatriates. According to the European Parliament, the agricultural workforce will continue to decrease by around 2% annually until 2030. Foreign labor will "partially offset" this decline.

How Canada is attracting skilled immigrants 

According to a recent report by the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), 40% of Canadian farmers will retire by 2033. The Canadian agricultural sector will need at least 30,000 foreign immigrant workers to replace them.

Pilot program to attract immigrants to the agricultural sector

The government's Agri-Food Pilot Program, launched in 2020, was supposed to respond to the shortage by encouraging immigrants to work in agriculture. Initially implemented until May 2023, it has now been extended until May 2024. The Pilot Programme is supposed to allow experienced seasonal workers to obtain permanent residence. However, according to critics, it was not well planned, and it was difficult for them to think in terms of seasons because a farm is operational all year round. The pilot program was extended with some corrections. The Pilot Programme is now defined as "a pathway to permanent residence for experienced non-seasonal workers in certain industries and professions".

Foreign workers expected to save Canadian farms

Canada is also investing considerably to attract experienced foreign agricultural workers. Because farms are closing down, attracting immigrants capable of taking over these farms or setting up their own farms means ensuring the vitality of an entire region. Expatriates have already responded by taking over farms or starting their own businesses, emphasizing the importance of collaboration with the local community.

For example, immigrants raise the issue of access to information, knowledge of the local market, the system for renting agricultural machinery, and the need for advice on selling their products, given the particularities of the local market. They also point out that the price of farmland is rising (+20% over the last 5 years), making it harder for new professionals to establish themselves in the industry. To find affordable land, you have to go to the province of Saskatchewan, where the price per square meter is the lowest in the country. The results of the survey are encouraging Canadian communities to continue supporting immigrant farmers. It's a win-win situation for everyone.

The long-term solution to the chronic labor shortage in agriculture may be to combine the Canadian approach with the need to enhance the image of the farming profession. Rather than relying solely on seasonal workers who, by definition, only stay for a short time, hiring experienced foreigners to take over farms ensures the continuity of the business over the long term and helps to revitalize an entire region. This approach goes hand in hand with better information about farming jobs for immigrants and locals alike, starting at school.