At Connery Riverdale Farms near Portage la Prairie, the fields and staff accommodations sit empty. They’re awaiting both the 2017 growing season and about 60 temporary foreign workers who will largely handle the hand-picked harvest necessary for much vegetable production.
Beth Connery is one of several Manitoba producers to draw from the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), an agreement between Canada, Mexico and Caribbean countries that has brought thousands of temporary foreign workers to Canadian farms since 1966.
“Certainly for some of the hand-harvested crops that are being grown in Manitoba, we could not do it without workers,” she said. “Without the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, we would not be able to get employees who would do the work and we would have to stop growing those crops.”
More commonly discussed in Ontario, a hotbed for the horticultural work reliant on the program, the SAWP has grown in popularity in Manitoba as horticulture operations become more common.
“It’s actually increasing on an annual basis, especially for any of the farms producing vegetables where there’s more hand labour needed,” Keith Kuhl, outgoing president of the Canadian Horticulture Council, said. “For those farms, it’s absolutely crucial that they have access to temporary foreign workers.”
Starting in the ’70s, Connery began with about a dozen SAWP workers, gradually increasing as local labour dried up. Today, she said, many of her workers are return employees, some of whom have returned to her farm for six months of every year for decades.
Contracts through the pro- gram range between three and eight months and require employers to provide accommodation and transportation for workers, although the latter may be recouped partially through payroll deductions according to Employment and Social Development Canada. Work permits are employer specific and a farm may ask for a specific employee to return.
“It provides continuity for us because we get guys back who already know our farm and the other guys around and what their job is and what they need to do,” Connery said.
For temporary workers employed by Vanderveen’s Greenhouses in Carman, the season is already at its peak.
Between 20 and 24 workers arrive from Mexico to work at the greenhouse each year, up from the initial six a decade ago, assisting in its busy three-month planting season.
“Before we had this, it was a lot more part-time help, so we’d have people coming and going three days a week, shorter days. It was a lot more work just to juggle it all and make it work,” Jordan Vanderveen said.
Workers put in between eight and 11 hours, six days a week, of general labour as Vanderveen’s prepares for its summer rush. Plants must be seeded, cared for and readied for May shipping, while the greenhouses themselves must be ready, seeds, seedlings and mature plants in place, before the nursery opens its doors to the public in late March.
English skills vary widely between workers, Vanderveen said, a challenge that at times limits an employee’s ability for certain tasks, although he added that the language barrier can usually be overcome. Some employees are fluent in English by the time they arrive in Canada, he said. Others are not, but can communicate with the regular staff, many of whom have picked up some Spanish over years interacting with their temporary workforce. In some years, workers have taken English lessons through the community, although Vanderveen says that option is not widely used.
“For the most part, they’re too busy when they are work- ing here and it depends. Some of them learn online. Some of them don’t want to learn. It just varies from guy to guy,” he said.
While producers and commodity groups have been vocally supportive, both Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program and Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program have faced harsh criticism by the public and activist groups who accuse them of exploiting migrant workers.
Justice for Migrant Workers, an Ontario-based non-profit founded by Chris Ramsaroop, has reported complaints of insufficient housing, pay discrimination between migrant and non-migrant workers, gender discrimination, incidents of racism from surrounding communities, inadequate representation in policy-making and contract disputes, exposure to chemicals or pesticides without adequate safety training or gear, insufficient breaks and work days up to 15 hours.
Critics have also argued that the program discourages workers from reporting abuses, for fear of repatriation or expulsion from the program, does not provide a clear path for permanent residency for workers who have spent decades returning to Canada and limits options for workers to escape bad conditions, as a transfer to another farm requires the agreement of the current employer.
In 2016, a report by the federal Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities Committee identified employer-specific work permits as a vehicle for potential abuse and recommended the requirement be eliminated. The committee also recommended that multiple work visas be issued to seasonal migrant workers to increase mobility through off-seasons and the pathways to permanent residency be reviewed for all temporary foreign workers.
Also in 2016, SAWP made headlines with the story of Shel- don McKenzie, a 39-year-old Jamaican man who suffered a head injury in 2014 while working on an Ontario farm and later died. While eligible for Canadian health care under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, McKenzie’s family reported that his work visa, and its health-care privileges, were later revoked due to his inability to work. The family was in the midst of applying for a humanitarian visa when McKenzie died.
McKenzie’s cousin, Marcia Barrett, appeared before the Hu- man Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities Committee in June 2016 to argue for upgrades to the program.
“I am not asking this committee to dismantle the program,” she said. “The program has been a great benefit to my cousin’s family and to many families who are here to work. I am asking the committee to get rid of some of the things in the program that cause these migrant workers not to have access to the proper health care, proper benefits, proper training, and proper working conditions that regular Canadians have.
“I am asking this committee to get rid of things in the pro- gram that have caused the worst nine months of my life, living under the constant fear that my cousin, who was lying in a hospital bed with a head injury, was going to run out of health care and be sent back to his country, which does not have the facilities or the medical capability to take care of him.”
In its final report, the committee identified that “certain SAWP-related aspects are having a negative impact on temporary foreign workers,” but included no specific recommendations.
Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agriculture Resource Management Services (FARMS), which oversees the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, was overtly skeptical of the criticism.
“If there are these bad things going on, then name the farm, but they won’t do that because it ain’t so,” Forth said. “We’ve always said that. Just tell us.”
A broccoli producer whose farm has drawn from the program for the last 48 years, Forth currently employs about 18 temporary foreign workers.
“These people who work for us become more than just employees; they become part of who we are,” he said. “As an example, my father died about a month or so ago and three or four of them who have been on my farm forever were as upset as we were about it, and you don’t get that in an employer-employee relationship if they hate you.”
FARMS has argued that SAWP workers are paid an hourly wage, “not less than the provincial minimum wage rate or the local prevailing rate paid to Canadians doing the same job, whichever is greatest,” are covered under workplace safety insurance and provincial health care and must be given accommodation that meets health and safety regulations and is annually inspected, according to a March news release.
According to Winnipeg immigration lawyer Paul Hesse, the Employment Standards Act does not require farm workers to be paid overtime, although workers must be paid wages for all hours worked.
The federal government pro- vides a wage scale for specific agricultural products, as well as the rights and responsibilities of all parties in an SAWP contract through Employment and Social Development Canada.
“Both the Government of Canada and the Government of Manitoba can audit employers of foreign workers,” Hesse said. “Employers should keep records for at least six years after the end of the working relationship. Those records should include proof that all promises to foreign workers were met, including time sheets, proof that all required wages were paid, housing was provided as required, transportation costs paid for as required, etc.”
Forth argued that produce would be cost ineffective if producers were required to pay overtime and would not be able to compete against imports from countries with less stringent labour rights. He further argued that the reporting mechanism for migrant workers is robust, including bilateral co-operation, a 24-hour contact number and liaison officers from the countries in question.
“They do a whole lot for these guys and they’re just available to do that,” he said. “That’s why this system works and the other ones don’t work as well… I run other businesses too, outside of agriculture. I want to run a nice business. I want to feel good about it. I want my employees to feel good about it.”
Producers and agricultural groups have argued that the program provides financial stability to workers, allowing them to support family, put children through university or build businesses in their home countries that they otherwise would have been unable to afford.
In Connery’s case, the continued criticism of the program is described as “disappointing,” as is the potential to be “lumped in with all the other employers, some of whom appear to not be using the programs properly.”
“Certainly the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program has been around a very long time,” she said. “It’s very well organized. It has contracts that are signed by the governments and the employer and the employee, so everyone knows what to expect and all of the employee’s rights are protected.”
Aspects of the 2016 parliamentary committee report, such as more temporary visas, appeared in the recently tabled federal budget, although recommendations to do away with employer-specific work permits and the four-year cap for workers in the Temporary Foreign Worker program (a point of contention in the agri-food industry, which has resented sending trained employees away after four years) were not addressed.