Canadian consumers should brace for further price increases in coming weeks, notably for imported produce, as new vaccine border restrictions kick in for cross-border truckers.
The U.S. will start turning back unvaccinated Canadian truckers at the border on Saturday. Canada started banning unvaxxed U.S. truckers last weekend.
Unvaccinated Canadian truckers returning to Canada must quarantine for 14 days.
That adds a two-week delay to shipments that often are already several months late.
That additional compromising of a supply chain suffering the worst shortage of truckers in North American history pushed up the cost of transporting fruit and vegetables by an estimated 25 per cent last week.
Especially in winter, Canadians are reliant on the $3.5 billion worth of produce that is hauled by truck each year across the U.S. to the GTA from California, Arizona, South America and other southern climes.
The impact on already above-average inflation will depend on how long the dubious border policy continues.
This space has consistently highlighted the merits of vaccination.
But the vaccination mandates for cross-border truckers is among the oddest steps that Ottawa and Washington have taken so far in the pandemic.
International sensitivities required that the Canada-U.S. border be closed for most of the pandemic.
But an exception was made for the staggering $1.7 billion in goods that cross the border each day by truck.
A further exemption was granted to cross-border truckers from vaccination mandates.
Suddenly that changed, with Ottawa’s November announcement of a vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers.
Omicron, the most contagious of the COVID-19 variants so far, has spooked Ottawa and Washington into imposing a harsh border measure that has not been sufficiently thought through.
Just about everyone reliant on the supply chain has objected to that new border policy, including Canadian factories already short of parts, and retailers with aisles of empty shelves.
Ottawa’s response this week, by Jean-Yves Duclos, the federal health minister, is that his government and its U.S. counterpart agree that “protecting the health and safety of workers is also protecting the businesses that hire those workers, and also protecting the supply chains.”
That assertion would have more credibility if Ottawa could point to a significant number of COVID-19 outbreaks traced to cross-border truckers.
There is sufficient evidence to find such cases, to the extent they exist, from the five months that cross-border truckers were exempted from vaccination requirements.
Or, indeed, from the cross-border truckers who travelled freely across the border during the 20 months that it was otherwise closed.
As it happens, there have been few COVID-19 outbreaks traced to truckers, in contrast with factory workers in Asia Pacific and dockworkers there and in North America.
And if truckers are such a threat to public health — a plausible notion given their ubiquity — why not mandate that all 300,000 or so Canadian truckers be vaccinated?
Or are governments playing politics with cross-border truckers?
Under fire for mishandling this stage of the pandemic, Ottawa and Washington have hit on an expedient of targeting cross-border truckers.
It isn’t difficult to check the vaccination status of the approximately 120,000 Canadian cross-border truckers.
Unlike about two-thirds of their peers, they are obliged to pass muster with officials of the Canada Border Services Agency at international checkpoints.
Meanwhile, the trucking industry reports that about 80 per cent of truckers are fully vaccinated. That compares favourably with the national average of about 77 per cent.
Truckers also have below-average contact with the public. They spend most of their working hours isolated in their cabs.
It’s worth noting that upward of 40 per cent of Canadian truckers routinely cross the border. Only about 1 per cent of America’s estimated 3.5 million truckers do.
That’s how reliant Canadians are on cross-border shipments.
Goods trucked across the U.S. destined for the GTA are not only imported U.S. products but goods arriving at U.S. ports from around the world.
As things stand, few unvaccinated cross-border truckers have changed their vaccination status since Ottawa’s November announcement.
That’s despite trucking companies hastily increasing pay for cross-border drivers and offering hefty signing bonuses for drivers willing to sign on as international shippers.
As the Star has reported, an estimated 12,000 cross-border truckers, or about 10 per cent of the total, will likely stop carrying goods across the border rather than get vaccinated.
Those drivers won’t suffer a loss of income. Amid a tight market for truckers, they will find plenty of work elsewhere.
Somehow, Canada and the U.S. didn’t take that into account, even though both countries have been afflicted with a shortage of truckers for decades.
Trucking doesn’t pay well. It’s dangerous work. And it plays havoc with work-life balance.
Trucking accounts for about 70 per cent of freight haulage in North America.
If nothing else comes from this dubious chapter in the pandemic, let’s hope it spurs a heightened awareness of truckers’ importance, and the better working conditions they deserve.
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