International workers have begun to trickle onto Manitoba farms.
On Beth Connery’s farm, near Portage la Prairie, seven Jamaican men were a few days into their 14-day quarantine when she spoke to the Co-operator on April 15.
“It’s nice to get started,” Connery said. “This will get us going.”
Each year, about 60,000 temporary foreign workers arrive in Canada to work in the agricultural sector. Fifty to 60 of those return year after year to Connery’s farm, but their arrival was delayed after COVID-19 closed borders and shut down airlines.
Connery, who is labour chair for the Canadian Horticultural Council, said she expected workers to arrive from Mexico within the next week.
On April 14, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that 83 Nicaraguan beekeepers and other workers had landed in Alberta earlier that week. Connery said she’d heard some had arrived in Manitoba.
Once workers arrive, they have to observe strict safety protocols like the 14-day quarantine during which workers must maintain a two-metre distance from each other and clean kitchens and bathrooms once they’re done with them before other workers can use them, Connery said.
On her farm, each of the men have their own bedroom, she said. On other farms with bunkhouses, Connery said some owners were bringing in camper trailers so workers could spread out.
The federal government announced April 13 that it would pick up part of the tab for quarantine-related expenses. The government is offering $1,500 per temporary foreign worker to help farmers and other food producers cover costs related to the stepped-up safety protocols.
The funds can be used to modify housing or pay for accommodations — such as at hotels or in student residences — where employees will take part in a mandatory 14-day isolation period before they can begin working.
“It’s very good news,” said Patty Rosher, general manager of Keystone Agricultural Producers.
“Whether or not it’s enough will really depend on the individual producer,” she added.
Workers are paid throughout their 14-day isolation.
“That’s just money for us that’s going out the door,” said Connery.
Machinery and work practices may also need to be modified so workers can maintain their distance. Connery said her farm is looking at how to modify asparagus-picking buggies — likely adding barriers between the three seats.
Connery said they’re planning to bring in masks and goggles for workers, and to step up cleaning protocols in the field.
“I think it’s just going to be a case of doing our very best to help protect them and to protect our regular workers here,” she said.
Delay in worker arrival, doubts that enough workers will come, and the high numbers of laid-off Canadian workers has led some to call for more efforts to hire Canadians.
On April 8, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced changes to the Canada Summer Jobs program aimed at businesses with fewer than 50 employees that are delivering essential services.
The deadline for application to the program was Feb. 28. It’s not clear if application will be reopened. The federal government did not respond to a request for clarification by press time.
According to federal officials, they are now looking for opportunities available on farms and within the sector.
“This is certainly a piece of the puzzle, although not the solution to the labour needs of the sector,” said Agriculture Minster Marie-Claude Bibeau in a statement. “Right now, there are many young people, who don’t know what they will be doing this summer, but need money and want experience. I hope many would consider helping on a farm or in local food businesses.”
“It will be interesting to see whether people are truly interested in those jobs,” said Connery. “We post them every year, and nobody really wants to work the hours or do the outside kind of jobs.”
They’re minimum-wage jobs, she added. Canadians might decide to stay home, collect CERB benefits and not risk exposure to the coronavirus.
She added that Canadian workers will need to be kept separate from international workers so the foreign workers aren’t exposed to COVID-19.
There will also be the matter of training the Canadian workers on safety and cleaning protocols, to recognize when asparagus is ready to be picked, and when it should be left in the field, and to understand the growth cycle of her various veggie crops.
“Which certainly can be done,” Connery said. “It will be interesting trying to train new people from six feet away.”
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture called for more federal support and incentives to solve labour issues in the ag sector.
“Labour was already a critical issue before the pandemic and has now escalated to the point that both farmers and food processors are worried that even if planting does proceed, harvesting and processing may not be possible without sufficient labour,” said CFA president Mary Robinson in a news conference April 16. “We face the possibility that crops will rot in the fields, as is now happening in other countries.”