Report paints gloomy farm labour picture

Producers likely won’t be able to hire enough domestic labour to make up for the shortfall of temporary foreign workers arriving to work in Canada this year.

A new report from the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy argues replacing temporary foreign workers (TFW) who were unable or unwilling to come to Canada because of COVID-19 may not be practicable, with producers struggling to find enough willing Canadians to make up for the labour shortfall.

Robert Falconer, who authored the report, said there are 14 percent, or 3,800, fewer TFWs who arrived in Canada over the first months of 2020. Primary producers are experiencing the largest reduction overall of workers, while secondary producers, like processors, have seen the greatest relative reduction.

According to the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, a little less than 46,000 agriculture workers had arrived in Canada for the 2020 season by July 12, compared to about 51,00 they had projected to arrive before COVID-19 for the first four months of 2020.

Each year, 50,000 to 60,000 foreign agricultural and food production workers come to work in Canada, with 2019 marking a high-water mark for the number of workers.

“We know how important seasonal agricultural workers are for our farmers and for Canada’s food security. We continue to see some challenges with more workers choosing to stay home this year and limited capacity for processing in worker’s home countries,” read a statement from Marco Mendicino, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

More temporary workers have been approved to enter Canada and are awaiting travel here, according to Mendicino’s office.

But according to Falconer’s report, Canadian producers will likely continue to experience a labour shortage.

“Federal and provincial governments may wish to consider steps to secure the safety of TFWs as one way to address concerns regarding our food supply chain,” he wrote. “As it stands, the decline in available workers is likely to make the 2020 agricultural season a more difficult one for producers. Policy-makers must understand the role of international labour in order to reduce the short- and long-term risks to Canadian agricultural production, thereby ensuring that harvests go on being planted, picked and processed, keeping our grocery stores stocked and Canadians enjoying reasonable prices for what they eat.”

A second report is expected to be released proposing specific recommendations on how to improve the situation.

Falconer’s report comes on the heels of Ontario and the federal government announcing changes to AgriInsurance that will allow for labour shortages to qualify as a cause of crop loss.

Ontario’s fruits and vegetable producers are expecting losses this year as a result of inadequate labour, and producers across Canada are fearing public sentiment towards how temporary foreign workers are treated could aggravate the labour issue.

Those fears won’t be calmed by recent comments made by federal Minister of Health, Patty Hajdu. During a June 26 meeting of the standing committee on social affairs, science and technology, she was heavily critical of how migrant workers are treated on farms in Canada, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis.

“The issue of migrant workers and infection I would say is far vaster than (personal protection equipment) PPE. I mean, all the PPE in the world will not protect you if you’re sleeping in a bunkhouse that is housing 12 to 15 people that may not have any ability for distancing, certainly no private washrooms or kitchens. There are issues of close-quarter working, depending on the type of farm and produce and producer,” she said, later adding “I am learning about the way that migrant workers are treated, both documented and undocumented by the way, in this country, if you’re not aware of it, would curl your hair.

“It is a national disgrace the way that workers are treated. I will say it’s not all farmers, by the way. There are many excellent farmers and farm corporations that are doing a good job, but there are others that are not protecting the health of their workers and are not taking it seriously.”

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