Mid-March, amidst the initial panicked onset of a COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian borders closed to most international travellers and a swath of the ag sector panicked.
They were counting on foreign workers — tens of thousands of them — to fill their ranks for the busy season ahead of them. Without workers from countries like Mexico and Jamaica, many farmers feared their season would be lost.
Why it matters: As COVID-19 disrupts food supply chains, some Canadians are thinking about where food comes from more than usual — with that comes questions about the people who grow that food.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Canadians were laid off as their businesses closed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. So when the Manitoba Co-operator reported these fears on social media, the same question kept popping up — why can’t Canadians do those jobs?
That’s a good question. But when it comes to agriculture and foreign workers in Canada, there are many questions:
What are the TFW and SAW programs?
There are a few different ways to hire an international worker for an agricultural job. First, there’s the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). This program brings in workers from Mexico and participating Caribbean countries like Jamaica and Grenada to work in exclusively agricultural jobs. They may work no longer than eight months in Canada before returning home, according to the government of Canada’s website.
The Agricultural Stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program allows employers to hire TFWs from any country for a maximum of two years when Canadian citizens and permanent residents aren’t available. The job must be in a specific commodity sector (as per the national commodity list, which includes things like pork, apiaries, tobacco and fruit production) and related to on-farm primary agriculture.
For jobs not included on the national commodities list but still related to agriculture, producers can hire through a stream for high-wage positions and a stream for low-wage positions.
“The program includes formal signed contracts that outline expectations of growers and expectations of growers and benefits to seasonal workers,” the Canadian Horticultural Council writes on its website.
International governments keep an eye on their citizens through liaison officers in Canada.
Some of the TFW streams require a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA). An LMIA shows that no Canadian worker is available for the job and allows the employer to hire an international worker.
“Canadian farmers hire Canadians first,” the Canadian Horticultural Council says on its website. “When Canadians are unavailable or unwilling to apply for farm jobs, farmers need international workers to help grow and harvest food for our tables.”
Seasonal paid workers make up 53 per cent of Canada’s paid agricultural workforce, the website says, adding that the job vacancy rate for agriculture is higher than any other Canadian industry.
When did these programs begin?
What became the SAWP program began in 1966 when 264 men from Jamaica came to Canada as part of a pilot program. A similar program had existed between Jamaica and the United States since 1942, writes historian Edward Dunsworth.
“Spots in both the Canadian and U.S. programs were highly coveted, given the high rates of un- and underemployment in Jamaica and relatively high wages on offer in North America,” says Dunsworth.
Workers had to apply to the Jamaican Ministry of Labour, prove two years’ experience in agriculture, and pass medical and background checks.
Over time, the program expanded to add workers from Mexico and 11 Caribbean countries. Other types of workers, like childcare workers, were added to the TFW program.
Sylvain Charlebois recalled working on farms in the 1980s and not seeing many international workers.
“Back then it wasn’t really popular,” said Charlebois, who is senior director of Agri-Food Analytics Lab and professor in food distribution policy at Dalhousie University.
Demand for foreign workers picked up in the ’90s as many young people left rural communities for college and didn’t come back, Charlebois said. It became tough to recruit young people to work the farms.
“It’s hard work,” he said. “Frankly a lot of kids can make more money… by doing other things.”
Issues and reform
For 13 of the Jamaican workers in 1966, their employment on a Hamilton-area farm came to an ignominious end one night when the workers were threatened by the farmer’s drunk, gun-toting friend. The terrified men fled the farm and reported the incident to their liaison officer.
Both countries’ officials, however, demonstrated little interest in pursuing justice for the aggrieved men,” Dunsworth writes. “There is no evidence that police were ever called or charges ever pressed.”
In fact, the Hamilton farmer was eventually refunded transportation costs he’d already paid related to the 13 workers.
The incident illustrated an issue that would continue to dog the program until now — the workers were vulnerable.
Though many farmers consider workers, who return year after year, part of their families, some workers are exploited or treated badly.
An October 2019 article in the Hamilton Spectator reported 3,100 complaints made to the Mexican government from seasonal agriculture workers in Canada between 2009 and 2018.
The most common complaints were around housing, according to the article. These included bedbugs, gas leaks and overcrowding. The Spectator reported 597 complaints of verbal abuse and 351 safety complaints.
The TFW program took heat in 2013 when revelations spread that RBC was firing Canadians and replacing them with cheaper foreign labour, according to a report from CBC.
“To quell the scandal, the federal government quickly changed the rules that allowed employers to pay migrant workers less than Canadian residents for the same jobs and temporarily suspended the accelerated approval process,” said a 2014 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a left-leaning think-tank. “But the abuses continued.”
The programs went through reviews and reforms over the years. Most recently, the federal government began the Primary Agriculture Review in 2017 as part of a plan to revamp the TFW program.
The report concluded that “considerable variation in standards for housing provided by employers to foreign agricultural workers across the country may pose a risk to worker health, safety or comfort.”
It found that employers considered the varying requirements across the different programs confusing.
It suggested that programs advertising requirements didn’t take into account that few Canadians responded to job postings for agricultural jobs.
It also said the “lack of a market-based wage methodology for the SAWP and Agricultural Stream creates concern that the methodology is not transparent and potentially suppresses wages.”
In February of 2019, the federal government rolled out a plan to “overhaul” the TFW program.
Impact on Canadian ag
As efforts to contain COVID-19 closed borders and shut down airlines mid-March, Manitoba fruit and vegetable growers, beekeepers, greenhouse owners and meat producers were worried the workforce they depend on wouldn’t show up.
Federal Minister of Agriculture Marie-Claude Bibeau soon announced that TFWs would be granted exceptions, and certain regulations on how long they’d be allowed to stay in Canada would be relaxed.
On March 27, the feds released a list of safety regulations for employers of international workers. The workers, for instance, would spend 14 days in quarantine before they could work, and must self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms.
On April 1, fruit and vegetable grower Beth Connery told the Co-operator that after the two weeks were up, she planned to keep the workers on her farm so they wouldn’t catch the virus from Canadians. Connery, who is labour chair for the Canadian Horticultural Council, said they were using the federal protocol to develop a plan to get groceries and essentials to the workers, and to plan what to do if workers got sick.
Despite the exemption and safety protocols, workers’ arrival is delayed and uncertain. Many airlines shut down international flights. Countries like Mexico were also concerned about workers’ safety, said Connery.
Connery said it was a matter of weeks until she needed international workers in the fields or her crops would be endangered.
Some provinces have begun encouraging farmers to hire Canadian workers — and so they should, said Charlebois. TFWs will almost certainly be delayed, and may come too late he added.
“It could compromise domestic food security by fall if nothing happens,” he said.
According to an April 6 report from Reuters, Caribbean workers were just starting to arrive at one Ontario apple orchard.
“They are isolated and paid for 40 hours per week during that period without touching a tree,” the article says. “Pruning work, a critical step to maximize yields, is now overdue.”
The same report says nearly 250,000 “foreign guest workers” harvest fruit and vegetables in the United States every year. Some American companies are having a hard time getting workers because of issues related to COVID-19.
Canadians eat a lot of American produce, said Charlebois.
“It is a food security issue on both sides of the border,” he said.