The federal government put out new rules for arriving temporary foreign workers on March 16 — just in time for one Manitoba farm to welcome its first worker of the season.
Paul Gregory, a honey and seed producer in the Interlake, said a Nicaraguan beekeeper will arrive on his farm in the second week of April. It’s a relief — last year, no temporary foreign workers (TFWs) made it to his farm because of pandemic-related red tape.
On March 15 he was still awaiting confirmation that four beekeepers from the Philippines would also arrive.
On March 16, federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced new rules for TFWs taking effect on March 21. Like other arrivals, TFWs will still be subject to COVID-19 testing at the airport when they arrive in Canada and will have to quarantine for at least 14 days.
If workers are asymptomatic and have private transport they may skip the immediate quarantine at a government-authorized accommodation and go directly to the farm or quarantine location.
If workers need to travel by public means, such as a connecting flight, they will first have to go immediately into government accommodations until they get COVID test results.
“Provided TFWs have a suitable quarantine plan and safe transportation arranged to their place of quarantine, the government intends to ensure employers and TFWs will not assume incremental costs associated with the three-day quarantine requirement at the point of entry,” the government said Tuesday. “Workers will also be provided with supports on arrival and during their hotel stay.”
Like last year, employers will get $1,500 per worker from the federal government to help cover expenses during the 14-day quarantine, including the wages workers are paid during quarantine.
Four airports are accepting international flights — Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal — so getting workers to Manitoba may be more of a challenge than usual. Bibeau acknowledged this and said some form of federal support would help cover that cost. She didn’t give details to what that support would involve, saying it wasn’t finalized.
The promise of support was encouraging, said Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
“She’s given us assurances that government understands this will increase the financial burden on producers, and there will be support for producers,” she said.
For Gregory, his Nicaraguan employee will arrive by charter flight in Calgary.
The Canadian Honey Council chartered one flight, which brought 138 temporary foreign workers from Nicaragua — most to work on the Prairies, said Rod Scarlett, the organization’s executive director.
A second charter, carrying between 160 and 220 workers is scheduled for April 9, he said.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the workers, Scarlett said.
On the 10th day of quarantine, workers must take a self-administered COVID test. Scarlett said the testing instructions are either in French or English — these workers speak Spanish. The workers must contact a nurse through a website to go through the administration of the test, said Scarlett. However, they’ve encountered almost endless queues, he said.
Purolator is supposed to pick up tests, said Scarlett, but it doesn’t pick up in some rural areas.
“There’s a real fear here that we will be unable — the employees will not be able to get their negative results within the 14-day quarantine period,” he said.
“We are facing some technical challenges with this Day 10 testing,” said Bibeau. “The department of (health) Minister Hadju is very aware. We are collaborating with them to facilitate the process.”
She added they’re hiring more people to help workers with the tests and are looking to simplify the process.
The federal government says it is beefing up measures to keep workers safe and employers accountable.
Last year, COVID-19 outbreaks on Ontario farms led to hundreds of workers becoming sick. At least three temporary foreign workers died.
Worker advocacy groups reported inadequate health and safety protections, poor housing conditions and inadequate access to food during quarantine.
In a news release March 16, the federal government said it would increase and strengthen inspections of farms to make sure they meet quarantine and TFW program requirements on wages and working conditions. It will also provide more education to employers about their obligations.
The government said it will fund migrant worker organizations to provide direct support to “workers affected by COVID-19” and will work with these groups to assist workers as they arrive.
It also pledged to improve the TFW tip line by adding live agents who can offer service in multiple languages. The tip line allows workers to report mistreatment or abuse and educates workers on their rights, the release said.
“Farmers, certainly, are focused on ensuring that we don’t do anything to put lives in jeopardy. And it doesn’t matter where those lives call home,” said Robinson.
Gregory, who expects to employ five foreign workers this year, said his farm has already been inspected and is ready to receive them.
— With files from Dave Bedard, Glacier FarmMedia network