Producers still have concerns about seasonal worker arrivals

People from Mexico and Caribbean nations make up a substantial amount of Canada's temporary foreign workers. | File photo

Federal officials say it is too early to know if Canada will have an enough seasonal agricultural workers arriving this year.

Producers continue to raise concerns over recently announced travel restrictions, despite assurances from Ottawa the changes won’t affect the flow of international labour needed on farms and in processing facilities.

During a Feb. 3 call with producers, officials from Agriculture Canada told stakeholders 5,400 seasonal agricultural workers had arrived, including 3,500 in January.

According to the Horticulture Council of Canada, the expectation is to have more workers in 2021 compared to last year, and that workers arrive at the right time.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Jan. 29 Canada’s air carriers were suspending services to sunny destinations. Flights to tropical locations, like Mexico, are being cancelled by Air Canada, West Jet, Sun Wing and Air Transat until the end of April.

People from Mexico and Caribbean nations make up a substantial amount of Canada’s temporary foreign workers.

International flights must land at one of four designated airports, and arriving passengers will have to prove they have a negative COVID-19 test.

But international workers are deemed “essential” by the federal government and won’t be required to quarantine at an approved hotel as they wait for negative test results. Instead, they’ll continue to be able to wait out their 14-day quarantine on-farm.

Beth Connery, the Horticulture Council’s national labour chair, said producers had a handle on the requirements put in place by Ottawa last year as they planned for 2021 — until Trudeau’s announcement came.

“We had all of that already in our thought processes and our planning, people were proceeding along that line, but throwing the monkey wrench of negative COVID tests made things difficult on the sending country side,” she said. “They are working their way through those issues, and they have done an admirable job, those countries, trying to make everything work.”

Connery said throughout the pandemic, the federal government has made follow-up announcements to producers that help them.

“Running a government is a big thing,” she said. “Trying to account for every individual group who needs accommodation is difficult to do.”

While she’s sympathetic to the government’s position, Connery said more consultation before announcements are made would be welcome.

“That would enable the government to know how it would affect people, and the responses that would be required and potentially a timeline needed for implementation,” she said.

Ottawa has offered financial assistance to help producers recover some extra costs associated with transporting and housing workers during the pandemic, but producers anticipate it won’t be enough.

“We anticipate that flight costs are going to be much higher than a normal year,” said Connery, who grows vegetable and fruits near Portage la Prairie, Man.

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