In 2015, about 40,000 temporary foreign workers were employed on Canadian farms.
Most of those jobs were at vegetable farms, orchards and greenhouses, but many workers were employed at grain farms, cattle ranches and poultry operations.
By 2019, the number of foreign workers on Canadian farms had reached nearly 60,000, based on data from the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.
If temporary foreign worker jobs at meat packing plants, seafood processing and transport of food are included, there were about 64,000 foreign workers employed in Canada’s ag industry last year.
“The number of TFWs working in agricultural production, processing, or transportation rose by 52 percent between 2015 and 2019 alone,” says a report from the Simpson Centre For Agricultural and Food Innovation and Public Innovation at the U of C, released July 14.
A jump of 52 percent, or more than 20,000 temporary foreign workers, in just four years is a massive increase, but the surge of workers from Mexico, Nicaragua and elsewhere went under the radar until this spring.
COVID-19 made it difficult for beekeepers, vegetable growers and other producers to get workers to Canada this spring because of the health and travel restrictions related to the pandemic.
Those restrictions cut the number of 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.
Most of the reduction has been on farms, but meat packing plants and seafood processors took a significant hit.
“These secondary agricultural-production facilities have experienced the greatest reduction in TFW arrivals relative to arrivals in 2019,” the report says.
“With meat-processing plants experiencing a decline of approximately 20 percent and seafood plants by 60 percent.”
Of the 63,680 temporary foreign workers employed in Canada’s ag sector last year, the largest chunk worked on farms in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. The report says:
• 15,340 temporary foreign workers 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
Several thousand of the foreign workers who came to Canada in 2019 didn’t make it back this year because of COVID-19. Part of the problem was uncertainty, regarding Canada’s approach to temporary foreign workers who work on farms.
The federal government took its time this winter before granting foreign workers who work on farms and within the food sector a COVID-19 exemption.
“It is nothing less than an issue of food security. We are making sure that our food supply chain is not compromised by the closure of our borders,” said Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, March 20. “The participation of temporary foreign workers on our farms and in our food businesses is absolutely necessary.”
Not surprisingly, the late-March decision reduced the number of foreign farm labourers who arrived in March, said Robert Falconer, a researcher with the School of Public Policy and author of the report. He estimated that 4,500 fewer foreign workers came to Canada in March 2020 compared to March 2019.
When farming is compared to transportation, another industry that employs temporary 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 per cent (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.”
Looking forward to 2021 and beyond, Falconer expects the number of foreign workers in Canadian agriculture will continue to increase. But hundreds of temporary foreign workers on Ontario farms contracted COVID-19 since arriving in Canada and two have died from the virus.
That has provoked an immense backlash.
“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,” said Justice for Migrant Workers spokesperson Chris Ramsaroop, CTV News reported in late June.
“Our message to provincial and federal politicians — stop murdering migrants by your inactions.”
Canada’s ag industry should be worried by such negative publicity, but Canada also needs to maintain the trust of countries like Mexico, Falconer said. If foreign governments lose faith in Canadian rules and protections for temporary foreign workers, it could slow the flow of temporary foreign workers to Canada.
“There is a risk if we do not ensure the health and safety of workers on farms,” Falconer said.
“You might have governments say, ‘we’re not going to send our workers up to Canada.’ ”