Foreign workers part of our agricultural landscape

In Canada, we rely on relationships with workers from other countries to keep our nation running. In agriculture, they represent 50,000 to 60,000 of our annual workforce.

Ensuring they are safe and welcome ensures our access to a domestic food supply. There is a role for government here to ensure Canadian farms are as safe as we can make them.

It might be easy to point at unemployed Canadians and suggest they should be taking up these roles. However that hasn’t been the case in the past. If they did, employers would be prevented from recruiting abroad.

Generally, the work isn’t located in places with year-around housing and the very nature of the work, when it comes to the agricultural stuff, is seasonal. From the outside looking in, it might appear to be lower-skilled employment. The fact is that many of the tasks on Canadian farms require experience and sets of skills that are the difference between profitability or not.

Most Canadian workers aren’t likely to line up for opportunities to work long hours in often challenging conditions, without overtime, while sleeping and dining in group housing, currently three per bunkhouse with COVID-19 rules. And when the work is done they are sent away for the off-season.

Canadian employment insurance programs, outside of these COVID-19 affected times, take a dim view of annual payment periods for regular seasonal employment. The TFWs are the difference between operating many agricultural businesses and not.

Last year, the pandemic rules were rolled out for TFWs at the same time that COVID-19 was ramping up. The regulations didn’t reflect the realities on the ground at the farms. Physical distancing was tough to manage. Farms and seasonal food processors weren’t built to segregate people and the results were expected.

Outbreaks occurred on many operations with thousands of workers catching the virus. Most farms and food businesses found safer paths forward as 2020 wore on. New rules are in place for this season, dealing with some of the realities of farm life and the virus.

Current regulations are still hard to manage and have prompted some Ontario producers to take their tractors to the roads this week in protest. They complain the two-week quarantine at arrival, no group travel from the airport and three-person limit in bunkhouses, no matter how large the facility, among other issues are unworkable.

In the past month, 22 Ontario farms have had positive COVID-19 cases and the season is only getting started. Should a case occur, producers are required to provide private bathroom and bedroom accommodations for self-isolation, something few farms are capable of doing, say producers.

Governments are assisting the industry with financial aid for hotel rooms and developing safer work and living spaces, however producers say it doesn’t meet the additional costs or deal with some of what they say are the impossibilities created by the regulations.

With fines of $1,000 to $100,000 per violation, up to $1 million in a year, along with a ban on taking part in immigration programs for up to 10 years and losing the ability to continue with current temporary foreign workers, the risks to a farm are obvious for violations.

More needs to be done by governments to ensure that farms, often running already tight margins, are able to meet regulations and remain operating.

Farm workers need this. Farmers need this. Our food system needs this.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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