Foreign worker fallout

The large number of COVID-19 cases could drive changes into essential foreign worker programs

Supporters tape photographs of migrant worker Rogelio Munoz Santos, who died from coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a pro-immigration rally by migrants, refugees and undocumented workers outside the office of Canada’s Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino in Toronto on July 4.
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The spread of COVID-19 on farms with temporary foreign workers has put an uncomfortable spotlight on the agriculture sector.

Vegetable farms, mostly greenhouses in the Windsor area, have experienced large outbreaks, with more than 1,100 temporary farm workers testing positive for the virus in the province.

Farm-level infections kept the Windsor area and then the Leamington and Kingsville areas from reopening, leading to economic hardship in the area.

Why it matters: Some fear the sector’s public image will suffer due to the outbreaks, while others see the an opportunity to help the public better understand the human resource challenges it faces.

Special government accommodation to ensure the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program would still be able to import foreign workers this year was initially celebrated in the media.

More recent media coverage has not been so kind, however.

“Housing workers in crowded bunkhouses and requiring them to labour long hours for low pay — a recipe that creates ideal conditions for infectious diseases like the new coronavirus,” said an opinion article in the Toronto Star on June 18.

There has been more focus on an agriculture than any other event for years, including investigations into illegal farm workers and the structure of the sector that has resulted in farm workers being moved to different locations and living together in large groups, which has helped spread the virus.

The importance of the program continues to be emphasized by farmers, although they see changes on the horizon.

Brett Schuyler, a partner with Schuyler Farms in Simcoe, Ont. says COVID-19 will have an impact on the program but he’s just not sure whether it will be negative or positive.

“It’s going to bring a lot of light to how reliant we are on this program,” he says. Whether that light is good or bad for the long-term availability of labour for farms remains to be determined.

Schuyler says consumers need to understand the importance of the workers.

In the peak of their apple harvest season the Schuylers require 250 people to pick the crop. Schuyler says it’s a mix of whoever they can get but usually 200 of the 250 people are temporary foreign workers.

“The base of our farm is the temporary foreign worker.”

Throughout this part of the season the Schuylers usually have 150 workers, but they currently only have 50 as most of their workers come in from Trinidad, a county which wasn’t allowing anyone to fly until July 6.

“We were going to farm asparagus this year, but we determined we (wouldn’t) end up harvesting that crop because we couldn’t get the labour in place or configure how to make it happen.”

Opportunity for a conversation with consumers

John Jamieson, CEO of The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, says that this chain of events provides an opportunity for the public to learn more about the temporary foreign worker program.

“It allows the public to realize the important contribution that foreign workers (provide) to the food system in Canada,” says Jamieson. “They are contributing to the economy. I’m not sure (Canadians) recognize how valuable these employees are.”

There have been calls on the government from the public to make changes to the program, and to “shut down” the agricultural sector entirely until adequate sanitation and safety measures can be implemented.

A temporary foreign worker sorts mushrooms at the Highline Mushrooms farm, Canada’s largest mushroom grower, in Leamington, Ontario. photo: Reuters/Mark Blinch

Schuyler hopes the implications of COVID-19 on the horticulture industry will give consumers a “reality check” on the food system.

“There’s a lot of the population that’s so focused on ‘let’s not take Canadian jobs’, and I fully support that, but there’s farm work where it’s clearly demonstrated that there are labour gaps,” he said, referring to the concern often expressed that farmers should hire Canadians to do the work done by temporary foreign workers.

Jamieson says “the fact of the matter is many Canadians aren’t prepared to do that work that is physically difficult, and often quite uncomfortable with the heat wave we have recently had in Ontario.”

“The temporary foreign workers often provide a stability on the farm that allows them to hire Canadians as well,” says Jamieson.

Justice for the Migrant Workers spokesperson, Chris Ramsaroop, did not return an interview request from Farmtario, but said in a statement to on June 29 “the industry must 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.”

Lessons on preparation for a pandemic

Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, says that much like any other industry or work area, farmers weren’t prepared for the outbreak.

“We have spent 50 years with the seasonal worker program, we really value these employees; we try and house them right, feed them right, we follow all the rules and protocols that are in place. What we realized, like a lot of places did, is that we weren’t prepared for something like COVID,” says Currie.

As well, some members of the public blamed foreign workers for bringing COVID-19 to Canada.

“People were blaming the foreign workers for this problem. This was community-spread. They were housed in a facility and then going to work on an operation that also had domestic workers who were coming and going freely,” says Currie.

Schuyler says every house on their farm is inspected by the local health unit and must meet certain standards. “I’m skeptical on there being huge changes to the housing. When they get rid of dorm housing in Canada, that’s a big step.”

Dorm housing has been a challenge in controlling the spread of COVID-19 due to the close living quarters for workers, no matter their separation during work hours.

It does, however, keep costs lower for employers.

“There are these people out there, these advocacy groups painting this picture of these abused farm workers and cramped living and I can tell you they haven’t been out to a farm,” says Schuyler.

Schuyler protested a requirement by the Norfolk medical officer of health that only three people could live in a bunkhouse. In reporting on the issues, the Globe and Mail said that his employees reported good working and living conditions.

“What most people don’t understand is they have access to OHIP, they can use our health options. They get Canadian Pension Plan, their transportation to and from the country is paid for. There are all kinds of perks that people don’t see,” says Currie.

Schuyler says he’s not sure how the program could be any more regulated than it already is. Farmers who use temporary foreign workers have to meet strict regulations and have their premises inspected.

Currie says it’s important that respective officials continue to communicate with the government and the public what the temporary foreign worker program means to Canada.

“I don’t think people realize that in Canada, even with all the foreign workers that we get, there is still about 16,000 positions on farms that go unfilled every year,” says Currie. “I think the hardest thing for us to do in this type of situation is to take the emotion out of it because emotion is a great driver, but it’s also a great controller.”

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