Coronavirus causes challenges and opportunities for producers

Some temporary foreign workers capitalizing on changes to extend stays in Canada, one expert says

One pork industry expert says some hog farmers are finding new workers and extending the stay of temporary workers during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Agriculture isn’t going away because of the pandemic,” said Janice Goldsborough, human resources and training co-ordinator with the Manitoba Pork Council.

As a result, farms are able to take on some workers laid off from business closures, said Goldsborough. She said she’s heard of high school students, currently out of school, approaching producers for work while other farmers have said they’ve filled vacancies with laid-off workers.

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Keystone Agriculture Producers said it hasn’t heard of other sectors snapping up laid-off workers, but is sharing job sites with members through social media and daily updates.

Goldsborough said international workers in the pork industry are also seeking to capitalize on the increase in maximum employment duration for the low-wage stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker program.

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced March 20 that the maximum would increase to two years from one, as part of measures to help farmers and other employers of foreign workers.

Goldsborough said workers in the pork industry often travel to Canada in hopes of becoming permanent residents and increasing terms to two years gives them more time to apply. It may also be easier than trying to go home right now, she added.

Just under 60,000 international workers came to Canada in 2017 through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), according to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council.

Goldsborough said some pork producers would soon be looking for international workers to fill vacancies in barns during seeding time.

Bibeau’s announcement also included exemptions for temporary foreign workers entering the country, despite current border closures and travel restriction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Workers are required to observe a 14-day quarantine and social distancing regulations. Airline closures are a logistical concern, though some organizations have discussed chartering flights to bring in workers.

“We can’t do without our seasonal worker program,” said Wilbert Ronald, president of Jeffries Nurseries near Portage la Prairie.

The nursery has employed international workers for 21 years and many of the workers have come back year after year.

Ronald said workers have contacted them wondering when they’ll be able to come to Canada. Most would usually arrive in April.

As of March 24, Ronald was still waiting for detailed plans as to how workers would get to Canada, and what protocols they’d be expected to observe.

Many farmers are probably thinking, “What do we plan for?” Ronald said.

About the author

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Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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