Report urges overhaul of foreign workers program

An analyst from the University of Calgary says food may end up costing more if temporary foreign workers aren’t better protected

It’s time to overhaul foreign farm worker conditions, rights and benefits, says a report by Simpson Centre analyst Robert Falconer.

If farm workers aren’t both better protected and kept as a central part of Canadian agriculture, Canadians could face a future of more expensive food that has to be imported rather than produced here.

“Taking immediate steps to protect their lives, health and well-being would benefit workers and secure our immediate labour supply,” writes Falconer in the Family Farmers to Foreign Field Hands: Consolidation of Canadian Agriculture and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program report, published by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

Beyond making workers’ lives better and more secure while they’re in Canada, governments should make it easier for them to become permanent residents.

“Expanding their access to permanent residency may also secure the long-term supply of labour, providing workers with additional incentives to work in agriculture.”

Falconer lays out a stark scenario for what would happen to Canadian agricultural production if governments reduced the numbers of foreign farm workers allowed to come to Canada.

Today almost half of paid workers in Canadian agriculture are foreign citizens, and hopes of some to turn unemployed Canadians into farm workers have repeatedly failed over the years. Without skilled foreign farm workers, many labour-intensive farms would be forced to scale down or leave the business.

Falconer thinks now is the time to improve the conditions for foreign workers by adopting several measures.

  • Allowing foreign workers access to Employment Insurance, particularly sickness benefits.
  • Restoring maternity and paternity benefits for temporary foreign workers even if their spouses are located in another country.
  • Improve monitoring and enforcement of public health regulations on-farm, including having food safety inspectors from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency report breaches.
  • Have provincial and federal governments share the costs of self-isolation and other public safety measures required for foreign workers, including those working in food processing plants.

None of these steps should undermine the ability of Canadian farms to maintain these workers, Falconer argues. And without their incorporation, farmers might find it impossible to convince the Canadian public that farm workers are not vulnerable, exploited and badly treated.

His recommendation to greatly improve the ability of foreign workers to acquire Canadian citizenship also shouldn’t undermine the ability of farmers to acquire and maintain workers.

Many of these workers enjoy working in agriculture, for which they have skills. Plus, if it was known in their home countries that being a temporary foreign worker would help one eventually emigrate to Canada, farmers might find many more workers applying to come to Canada.

Falconer said Canada has the opportunity to improve workers’ lives, while guaranteeing a dedicated workforce that much of Canadian agriculture depends upon.

Without the workers, much of the agriculture that employs them will disappear.

“The idea, then, of foreign workers being the keystone of Canadian agriculture seems all the more appropriate.”

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