Farmers who hire seasonal agricultural workers say staff should have their foreign drivers’ licences extended for the duration of their work permit in 2021.
Pandemic disruptions to testing made it difficult to get Manitoba licences in 2020, which meant workers could not drive or move equipment between fields.
“It was brutal. We did not get anybody through, able to get tested. Not a one,” said Sam Connery-Nichol who farms near Portage la Prairie. She employs around 50 seasonal agricultural worker program (SAWP) staff each year.
Members voted to lobby the province during the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) annual general meeting on January 26.
The resolution states that SAWP workers have 90 days from arrival before their home country drivers’ licence expires. Workers must also quarantine 14 days when they get to the farm.
It says Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI) often doesn’t have openings for written or road tests for over a month.
Additionally, in 2020, MPI offices were often closed due to the pandemic.
The resolution asks KAP to lobby MPI, Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development and other stakeholders to extend SAWP workers’ home licences for the entire eight months of their work permit.
Connery-Nichol, who brought the resolution forward, told the Co-operator she’d like to see this extension for 2021 or for the duration of the pandemic. She said she’s willing to pay extra for insurance if necessary.
Workers who’ve previously passed MPI tests don’t need to be tested again. According to MPI’s website they can surrender their foreign licence and renew their Manitoba ones.
Five previously licensed workers returned to her farm in 2020, said Connery-Nichol. Ideally they’d have 10 licensed drivers, but they made do with five workers doing multiple round trips. It wasted a lot of time, she said.
She said other farms, who hire fewer workers, were less lucky. Employers sometimes had to do all the driving.
MPI cancelled all road tests on March 14, 2020, according to a news release. Testing resumed in July. At the time, MPI said it had a backlog of 4,300 customers who’d previously scheduled tests.
Today, someone booking a Class 5 road test could get an appointment within a week to 10 days, said a spokesperson for MPI in an emailed statement.
Workers must pass both a written, knowledge test and a road test. Connery-Nichol said workers often need two or three tries to pass the written exam. They can take the test in Spanish (or other languages) but Connery-Nichol said the Spanish in the test is in Spain’s dialect, whereas many workers hail from Mexico.
It’s also very formally written. It would be like Canadians taking a test in formal, British English, she said. Many workers don’t have a high level of education, so they struggle. It’s also not uncommon for workers to need two rounds at the road test.
Workers can’t apply for the test before they arrive in Manitoba, or during their quarantine, because they have to set up a customer account and provide identity documents in person, said Connery-Nichol.
“Right now it’s nowhere near normal, and we need help to make sure things are working,” she said.
Getting licences for foreign workers has been troublesome even before the pandemic. Paul Gregory, whose operation includes seed production, forage and bees near Fisher Branch, hires beekeepers from the Philippines. To take the test, the beekeepers must take the day off and drive 100 miles (160 kilometres) for the test, he said.
Then, if they fail the test, they have to do it again — sometimes three or four times. “It’s a big deal,” he said.
KAP members also put forward a resolution to MPI to prioritize locals when booking testing appointments.
“Driving test appointments in rural areas are being booked by people from Winnipeg and Brandon,” it says.
Gregory said they’ve already done some lobbying on the topic, and some policy changes have been made, but this resolution formalizes the ask in a policy statement.
MPI said it has already changed its policy on booking road tests, at least in regards to Winnipeg addresses.
“MPI recognized that many residents did not have access to road test appointments due to an influx of Winnipeggers booking appointments,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “In December 2019, MPI changed its policy… Winnipeg addresses could not book an appointment in a rural centre.”
Drop the head tax, say farmers
KAP farmers asked the organization to lobby for a reprieve from a US$750 “exit clearance” fee the government of the Philippines charges on Filipino workers who haven’t worked in Canada in the past six months.
The resolution asks KAP to lobby the Canadian government to work with the Canadian Honey Council and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture to ask the Philippines to waive the fees for workers returning in 2021 to work for the same employer as in 2019.
Many Filipino temporary foreign workers weren’t able to come to Canada in 2020 because of the pandemic, the resolution says. Beekeepers, dairy farmers and pork producers often rely on TFWs from the Philippines, it adds.
Employers are on the hook for these fees.
Paul Gregory, who brought the resolution forward, said none of the Filipino beekeepers he usually hires for the season made it to Canada in 2020, which means each will require an exit clearance document.
The “POEA Exit Clearance,” according to the Government of the Philippines’ website, serves as a “travel exit pass” for workers at airports, is an exemption from a “travel tax and airport terminal fee” and serves as a worker’s guarantee that he or she is covered by government protection and benefits.
The fee generally goes to HR firms that are contracted to issue these clearance letters, said Gregory. It was originally meant to educate workers on their rights, but now serves more like a head tax, he said.
“As far as we can figure out, it’s kind of a money grab,” said Gregory.