Farmers worry about potential labour crackdown

Simone Lalonde, left, with Nicaraguan workers Junior Mora Lopez, Hector Salinas Medina and William Serrano.  Lalonde says farmers who hire temporary foreign workers are getting a bad rap.  |  William DeKay photo

Canada’s agricultural industry may be losing the public relations war when it comes to temporary foreign workers.

This spring, media in Toronto reported many stories on the darker side of temporary foreign workers — how they’re mistreated, exploited and forced to work under inhumane conditions on farms.

These images are more than a public relations problem. They could prompt tighter regulations, if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acts on his recent comments.

“We need to do a better job of protecting temporary agricultural workers in this country, temporary foreign workers in this country. We have taken a number of steps, but there’s more to do and we will do it,” he said in early June.

Simon Lalonde, a beekeeper in Clavet, Sask., isn’t panicking about the prime minister’s comments and what it could mean, but he said the media coverage isn’t accurate or balanced.

“I feel it paints a pretty dire picture that is not at all what actually happens,” he said.

“They’re trying to paint anybody who uses foreign workers as people who are exploiting (the workers). That’s absolutely not the case.”

Lalonde has about 4,000 bee hives and he employs 11 temporary foreign workers on his farm, all of them from Nicaragua. He’s been using foreign workers for nearly two decades and some of his workers have returned to work at his apiary for five, six or nine years in a row.

The story is similar for other beekeepers in Western Canada, who employ temporary foreign workers from Nicaragua, the Philippines and Mexico. Lalonde knows of one beekeeper who has employed the same worker for 20 years.

If conditions are so horrible, then why do many workers return year after year to Canada?

They like it, Lalonde said, but mostly they come for the cash.

“The amount of money they can make in Canada, in agriculture, is probably five times what they can make back at home.”

Canadian beekeepers and other farmers who hire temporary foreign workers begin the process in October or November.

Lalonde starts by advertising the job locally and nationally to see if Canadians want to work at his apiary and then interviews anybody who’s interested in a job.

The rate of pay on his farm ranges from minimum wage to about $20 per hour, depending on the skill and experience of the worker.

“Our biggest (snag) with hiring Canadians is it’s seasonal (work),” Lalonde said.

“It’s hard work and it’s outside. It’s a lot of physical activity, and in Canada a lot of people want to go to the lake on weekends.”

If the ads don’t generate enough candidates for a summer work crew, Lalonde can recruit temporary foreign workers. The next step is a housing inspection. A farmer who wants to hire a foreign worker must provide a place to live.

“That has to be approved by the local health authority…. That same house gets inspected every 12 months,” Lalonde said.

“There’s a specific (government) office that will do a housing inspection…. I believe most beekeepers run one person in a bedroom. There’s not a bunkhouse or dorm style…. We have a house on the yard site.”

The housing inspection is not a five-minute walk around the building.

The inspection guidelines for British Columbia, for example, are 16 pages long. The inspectors are required take photos of the facility and review all aspects of the housing — the roof, windows, furniture, temperature, electrical outlets and mattresses. The language is specific.

“Mattress must be a true ‘residential mattress’ at least six inches deep in good condition, able to comfortably support an adult,” the B.C. guideline says.

“It cannot be an inflatable mattress nor a camping style mattress or other pieces of exposed foam.”

However, housing standards vary from province to province. A Toronto Star story in March reported there is no national standard and confusion over who enforces the rules.

Once housing is approved, there are more steps and much more paperwork to fill out before Lalonde receives federal approval to hire a worker from Nicaragua.

He estimated it requires 100 to 200 hours of his and his administrator’s time over the winter to fill out the paperwork and satisfy the rules.

After the workers arrive in Canada (beekeepers and other employers pay for flights), the foreign employees are treated the same as Canadian workers — for health and safety guidelines, hours of work and other regulations.

“We have a contract with them where we guarantee … X number of hours per week. It’s usually between 35 and 50 hours per week.”

He doesn’t pay overtime. That’s the rule for all farm labourers in Saskatchewan.

“Whether you are a Canadian or foreign worker, there’s no overtime,” he said.

“Nothing changes between our Canadian crew and foreign worker crew. They’re treated 100 percent the same.”

Employers who hire temporary foreign workers are also subject to inspections by Service Canada. Those audits can happen anytime, without notice.

“The whole point of doing unannounced inspections is to make sure people are obeying the right rules of this program even when nobody is looking,” Matt Pascuzzo, press secretary for the federal employment, workforce development and labour minister, told the National Post in 2018.

Most farmers treat foreign workers fairly and there may be reasonable regulations in place, but it doesn’t matter if the public thinks otherwise. And a negative public perception is hard to dislodge.

A classic case is Manitoba’s hog industry and Lake Winnipeg.

In the 2000s, there were numerous media reports about hog manure poisoning Lake Winnipeg with excessive nutrients. That led to severe regulations on manure management. As an example, the province expected farmers to install an anaerobic digester to treat manure when they built a new barn.

The price tag for an anaerobic digester was about $1 million.

Less than five new hog barns were built in Manitoba between 2006 and 2016,.

“The government has put a large number of new regulations on the industry…. We’re not competitive with the U.S. to build (hog barns) right now…. The cost has significantly increased over the last number of years,” Karl Kynoch, former Manitoba Pork Council chair, said in 2015.

Fifteen years after the height of the controversy, regulations still represent a significant cost for Manitoba hog producers, and public perceptions haven’t changed, or changed marginally, even though researchers knowledgeable about hog manure don’t consider it to be an environmental menace.

If all the hog barns in Manitoba disappeared, about one to two percent less phosphorus would flow into Lake Winnipeg, Don Flaten, a University of Manitoba soil scientist, said a few years ago.

The main public relations challenge for Canadian farmers and the agriculture industry may fall under the heading of, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Once Canadians start talking about a certain aspect of agriculture, in their backyards over a beer, it’s probably too late.

That could be the case with temporary foreign workers.

Trudeau may act on his promise and impose more regulations on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which applies to workers from Mexico and the Caribbean.

That could be a problem for beekeepers like Lalonde because the TFWP is more streamlined than it used to be.

“From 2013 to about 2016, the regulations made it just about impossible to hire foreign workers, with how long it was taking to do things,” he said.

The government listened to industry and made changes, such as shortening the wait time between submitting an application and approval to hire a temporary foreign worker.

Lalonde doesn’t want to return to those days of over-regulation and delays because it could threaten his livelihood and Canada’s beekeeping sector.

Without foreign workers, Canada would produce less honey and bees would pollinate fewer crops. This year, when temporary foreign workers were having trouble getting to Canada because of COVID-19 restrictions, honey producers were working on a Plan B.

“An awful lot of beekeepers were … considering downsizing. It wasn’t a matter of going out and finding Canadians. It was, ‘if we can’t get these guys in … then how do we continue and how do we operate the same number of hives?’”

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