Foreign workers replace unpaid labour: report

Canadian farms employed 60,000 temporary foreign workers last year.  |  File photo

A researcher from the University of Calgary finds that temporary foreign workers often don’t take domestic jobs

One of the lingering arguments against temporary foreign workers is that they take jobs from ordinary Canadians.

In Canada’s agriculture sector that’s often not the case, says a University of Calgary immigration expert.

The evidence shows that foreign workers frequently replace unpaid labour on farms, especially on cattle ranches, grain farms and livestock operations.

“It’s not necessarily that TFWs are taking domestic jobs,” said Robert Falconer, a researcher in the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

“They’re taking the jobs that were previously unpaid labour on small farms.”

On July 14, the School of Public Policy released a report, authored by Falconer, on the role of temporary foreign workers in Canadian agriculture.

The report said Canadian farms are becoming increasingly reliant on foreign workers. About 40,000 TFWs had jobs on farms in 2015, but the figure had reached 60,000 by 2019.

“The number of TFWs working in agricultural production, processing or transportation rose by 52 percent between 2015 and 2019,” the report says.

A percentage of those foreign workers are replacing Canadians, who may be unwilling to work for a beekeeper in Nipawin, Sask., or pick apples at an orchard in British Columbia.

But a percentage of foreign workers are also replacing unpaid farm labour, Falconer said.

As an example, Producer X in Saskatchewan might purchase a neighbour’s cropland. In the past, the neighbour relied on his son for unpaid labour in the summertime. However, that free labour (neighbour and his son) isn’t part of the purchase agreement.

“When those farms merge you don’t keep the (other) family with the farm. You have to replace them with workers. Some will be domestic workers, but not as many as producers might hope,” Falconer said.

Such a scenario may explain the rise in foreign workers within some sectors of Canadian agriculture, but the largest number of temporary foreign workers are employed at vegetable, fruit and greenhouse farms, mostly in Ontario, Quebec and B.C.

In 2019, the report says:

  • 15,340 TFW were employed as farm labourers in Quebec
  • In Ontario, there were 23,920
  • B.C. had 11,395
  • Alberta 2,195
  • Manitoba 670
  • Saskatchewan 485

A jump of 52 percent, or more than 20,000 temporary foreign workers, in just four years is a massive increase, but the surge went under the public’s radar until this spring.

COVID-19 made it difficult for beekeepers, fruit and vegetable growers and other producers to get foreign workers to Canada because of the health and travel restrictions related to the pandemic.

Those restrictions cut the number of temporary foreign workers employed in Canadian agriculture by nearly 4,000 this year.

“Canada has experienced a shortfall of at least 3,800 foreign workers in comparison to 2019, a drop of approximately 14 percent,” the U of Calgary report says.

Many of the workers who came to Canada in 2019 didn’t make it back this year because of COVID-19. Part of the problem was uncertainty over Canada’s approach to temporary foreign workers and agriculture.

The federal government took its time this winter before granting foreign workers a COVID-19 exemption March 20, allowing them to travel to Canada for jobs in the agricultural sector.

Not surprisingly, the late-March decision reduced the number of foreign farm labourers who arrived in March.

When agriculture is compared to transportation, another industry that employs foreign workers, the delay in federal approval for ag labourers clearly had an impact, Falconer said.

“Farmers … are expected to face significant labour shortages, experiencing a drop of approximately 14 percent (TFW) below 2019 levels,” he wrote.

“By contrast, arrivals within the transportation sector increased by 55 percent in comparison to 2019. This may be a reflection of an early decision by the federal government to designate employees in the transportation sector as essential workers, with the ability to travel internationally.”

While farmers worried this spring about the difficulties of getting temporary foreign workers to Canada, critics have been concerned about the conditions on Canadian farms.

Hundreds of foreign workers, many working at Ontario fruit and vegetable farms, contracted COVID-19 after arriving in Canada and two have died from the virus.

The outbreak provoked a strong response from advocates for workers’ rights.

“The (ag) industry must immediately cease production and, as a society, we must demand that the interests of the workers are paramount, not the profits of a billion-dollar industry,” Justice for Migrant Workers spokesperson Chris Ramsaroop told CTV News in late June.

“Our message to provincial and federal politicians — stop murdering migrants by your inactions.”

Such language is inflammatory and doesn’t reflect the reality on Canadian farms, said Simon Lalonde, a beekeeper from Clavet, Sask.

“I feel it paints a pretty dire picture. That is not at all what actually happens,” said Lalonde, who has about 4,000 bee hives and employs 11 temporary foreign workers on his farm, all of them from Nicaragua.

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

The exploitation may be exaggerated, but the perception is a problem — inside and outside the country.

Canada needs to maintain the trust of foreign governments, Falconer said. If Mexico, Nicaragua and other nations lose faith in Canadian rules and protections for temporary foreign workers, it could slow the flow of workers to Canada.

“There is a risk if we do not ensure the health and safety of (foreign) workers on farms,” Falconer said.

“You might have governments say, ‘we’re not going to send our workers up to Canada.’ ”

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