Program to protect farms, workers from COVID

Applications are now open for a federally administered $35 million Emergency On-Farm Support Fund.

Aimed at lessening the impact of COVID-19 on farms and employee living quarters, the fund is being managed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), and cost-shared with producers at a 50-50 level.

Money is coming from a $58.6 million fund announced by Ottawa in July focused on better supporting temporary foreign workers and strengthening employer inspections.

The fund is only being made available in Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the territories.

“Some (provinces) preferred to see the federal government manage the programs, others preferred to manage it themselves. Some already have a similar program that they will be able to improve, or make it more generous, or include a longer list of eligible expenses,” said Minister of Agriculture Marie-Claude Bibeau when the program was announced on Oct. 5. “This is really the result of a discussion with each of them.”

Programs being developed and delivered by provinces will be announced in the coming weeks, according to Bibeau.

Money from the fund can be used on direct infrastructure improvements to living quarters or work stations, the creation of emergency or temporary housing and to purchase personal protective equipment.

Each applicant can receive up to $100,000.

According to Agriculture Canada, “An additional 10 percent will be provided to women and youth applicants making the split 60-40 as the government is taking steps to promote and empower women and youth in the agricultural sector.”

Bibeau said this will apply in instances where the farm business is majority owned by a women or young producer.

“The biggest diversity challenge we have is with women and youth, but there is certainly Indigenous and black community (members) that could be included in this privileged cost-sharing, absolutely,” she said.

Greenhouses that hire a lot of migrant workers are also eligible to apply for the funding.

In her virtual news conference, Bibeau said Agriculture Canada will put a priority on the “highest risk farms for COVID-19 outbreaks” to receive funding.

She said funding allocations will be based on “the overall evaluation of the working environment and housing environment, and the number of workers.”

According to her, producers can expect to receive money roughly 30 days after they file their application. Eligible costs are retroactive to March 15, and the fund will be available until the end of February.

When first announced in July, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough said government needed to take further steps to protect workers because of reports of “inappropriate behaviour and unsafe working conditions.”

During her press conference, Bibeau said the responsibility to ensure the best measures are in place to protect workers is a shared one.

“We have to remember that these migrant worker programs are primarily labour programs, and then comes the immigration or temporary immigration part of it. We want to be extremely careful that any workers, migrants or Canadians, are well protected, that we put sufficient measures in place,” she said.

“Obviously, COVID has put the light on the weaknesses of this program and I think it’s always important to remind people that the vast majority of farmers and agri-food employers are good employers who care for their employees, but there are bad ones. This is why we’re strengthening the measures to identify them, with more follow-up and inspections, better collaboration with the provinces and the foreign country consulate and embassies.”

Part of the $58.6 million funding commitment included $16.2 million to be used to hire new inspectors and ensure allegations against employers are addressed.

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.

According to Bibeau, Canada has received about 84 per cent of the number of foreign workers it took in last year.

Throughout the pandemic, there has been a heightened focus on the conditions temporary foreign workers face in Canada, in part due to outbreaks and COVID-19 related deaths among some workers.

July’s funding announcement included plans to begin consulting with the provinces and territories on mandatory requirements for the temporary foreign worker program in the months to come.

“We have to make it easier for the good (employers) and very much harder for the bad ones,” said Bibeau.

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