Migrant workers are essential to the industry, farm leaders say

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A vulnerability of Canada’s agriculture and food system has become apparent with the fallout from the coronavirus. Much of the crop, especially within the horticultural sector, cannot be planted, let alone harvested, without international migrant workers.

Upwards of 40,000 are employed on farms and many others work for Canadian food processors.

As of Thursday morning, March 19, Ken Forth with the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Service (F.A.R.M.S.) and Bill George, chair of the Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA) said a decision had yet to be made as to whether migrant workers from Mexico, the Caribbean and other countries will be allowed into Canada.

“I happen to be at the centre of this and it’s not on. As of this moment, it is not on,” Forth said.

Forth and George, however, have not given up hope that a solution can be found. With the spring planting season already underway, a brief has been sent to members of the federal cabinet outlining a plan to bring in workers and also manage their health status.

Forth said several cabinet ministers had already acknowledged receipt of the brief.

“I think this decision will absolutely will come from the cabinet. I hope they will get on board with us to find a solution,” he said.

Concerns over the migrant workers issue came to a head on Monday, March 16 when a spokesperson with Employment and Social Development Canada informed farm leaders across the nation through a conference call that international migrant workers would not be allowed to come to Canada.

A couple days later, Ontario’s minister of agriculture sent out an email informing the farm community in the province they would indeed be allowed to come.

However, Ernie Hardeman appears to have jumped the gun in having made the statement, according to Forth and George.

Meanwhile, Canadians have been demonstrating a concern for their food supply. Along with the run on toilet paper, certain foodstuffs are being snapped up by consumers, with grocery store shelves being emptied.

Forth believes the agricultural worker programs in Canada and the food industry are an essential services. However, he’s unsure as whether the federal cabinet will come to the same conclusion.

The production of food domestically will need to be weighed against what can be imported and the security of those imports, he said.

Ontario Farmer contacted several other members of the agricultural community last week. Joe Sbrocchi with the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, OFVGA executive-director Alison Robertson and Ontario Federation of Agriculture President Keith Currie all weighed in.

“If the people (workers) don’t get here soon we won’t be planting. We’ll need to rely on our supply from California and Florida,” Robertson said.

Currie said his organization and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture has been working with several federal ministries, including Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “We’re a big agricultural county and we need that labour.”

Concern has been expressed for the workers themselves. If Canada doesn’t let them in, they’ll lose a valued source of income. There’s also concern that the economy will a major hit if Canadian farmers are not allowed to move forward with their planting intentions because of a labour shortage.

There are two main programs under the Temporary Foreign Workers’ Program (TFWP), the Season Agricultural Workers’ Program (SAWP) and similar programs in Quebec and BC and the agricultural stream of the TFWP.

Under the SAWP, workers stay in Canada for up to eight months per year; a few have already arrived. Under the agricultural-stream system, workers can remain in Canada for consecutive years and significant number were already in Canada when the coronavirus emergency began.

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