Like many other sectors, farmers and food processors in Canada have adapted their operations due to COVID-19, implementing physical distancing, installing plexiglass barriers and ensuring their staff wear personal protective gear. But unlike other sectors, farmers and food processors have had to deal with the additional challenge of fewer temporary foreign workers (TFWs) than in other years.
The importance of TFWs in Canada
Agriculture requires an adequately staffed workforce to keep operations going. TFWs play a large role in food production in Canada, working in fishing, farming, food processing and packaging. In 2018, there were nearly 55,000 jobs filled by TFWs in Canada’s agricultural industry. While the majority of employees working in agriculture are Canadian citizens or permanent residents, in 2018 almost one in five workers in primary agriculture came from a foreign country.
For insight into the role of TFWs in Canada’s food supply, we spoke to Marlene Huntley, executive director at Horticulture Nova Scotia. “Foreign workers fulfil the employment needs Canadians are not able or willing to do. Though farmers strived to bring in local talent to fill their farming needs throughout this season, only the minority were truly successful in accomplishing this,” she said.
“As these foreign workers are often supporting a family in their home country and leave them for a long period of time to do so, they come determined to work hard and earn as much as possible to send back home; they bring a very strong work ethic and, for returning workers, invaluable experience. Many have been with the same farms for many years and are like family to the host growers,” she added.
The Government of Canada’s TFW program allows employers in agriculture to hire employees from a foreign country, provided they cannot get a Canadian citizen or permanent resident to fill the role. Employers must provide these workers with the same wages and benefits they would provide to Canadians. They also provide the workers with housing.
The challenge of COVID-19 and fewer TFWs in Canada
COVID-19 has resulted in international travel bans and provincial restrictions on temporary foreign workers due to high local unemployment, leading to a 14 per cent drop in TFWs working in Canada in 2020. This has inflicted immense pressure onto farmers who struggled to get their crops from their fields and greenhouses to Canadian supermarkets. The global health crisis has highlighted the importance of TFWs as they often come with specific production knowledge and are relied upon as experienced workers who support Canada’s food supply.
More than 1,300 agricultural workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in Ontario since the start of March, most of them prior to July, according to the advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers. COVID-19 infections were linked to the deaths of three migrant workers across Ontario. Advocates had complained that workers had been fed poorly by the organizations mobilized to assist them, during those early days of the pandemic and those still on the job lacked access to personal protective equipment (PPE).
Joseph Sbrocchi, general manager of Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers offered a perspective on what farmers are doing to keep TFWs safe during COVID-19. “Understanding that I only speak for the vegetable greenhouse sector in Ontario, I can tell you that we at no time lacked PPE for our workers. In fact, we flew in an entire shipment on our own at the very beginning to ensure we had the appropriate equipment to ensure worker safety.”
“Measures our greenhouse growers adopted included moving the concepts of mask wearing and social distancing into the operationalized setting of our greenhouse farms. This wasn’t a big stretch to us, as biosecurity at the farm level is already heavily leaned on now to control plant threats which could conceivably destroy millions of dollars of crops so quickly,” he continued. “Some legacy situations, such as the congregate living that exists in most worker residences (sometimes known as worker housing / bunkhouses), posed an especially challenging aspect for us. The early breakouts were well documented, especially given the fact that so much of our community was in lockdown that it left little to be compared to. But as we saw once the economy opened up, the spread of this virus does not discriminate and today agri-workers positive cases are less than 3 per cent of all Ontario positives to date.”
To address this, on July 31, 2020 the Government of Canada announced an investment of $58.6 million to strengthen the two major foreign worker programs to protect agricultural workers from COVID-19. This investment included $7.4 million to increase supports to TFWs, $16.2 million to strengthen employer inspections and $35 million to improve health and safety on farms and living quarters.
Sbrocchi provided insight into how those funds were spent to strengthen the TFW program. “A good part of those funds were directed to help growers make short-term improvements to their workers’ living quarters. Since our workers are here for anywhere from eight months to two years, depending on which program the farm subscribes to, most of our housing already exceeds the minimum standards as set out by ESDC (Employment and Social Development Canada). However, COVID-19 has shone a light on the public health challenges associated with congregate housing and our members are keen to do their part to ensure their employees are protected and safe, at work, in the bunkhouse and in their communities.”
This investment is an important step to ensure TFWs are protected while in Canada. As the pandemic rolls on, policy makers must understand the critical role of international labour in the agricultural sector in order to prevent the detrimental long-term effects on Canada’s food supply while still ensuring the safety of TFWs.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.