Foreign workers leave families behind, but also see opportunity

More workers from other countries are filling empty farming roles, including on hog farms

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Farmtario will continue to check in with Helen Espinola as she settles into her two-year work term in Canada.


Helen Espinola left behind her husband and two children in the Philippines to work on a hog barn on the norther border of Huron County.

She’s a farrowing room technician who says she loves working with animals and has made it her career.

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She is one of a growing number of employees working on Ontario livestock farms under the Temporary Foreign Worker program, as the ability of those local farmers to find suitable employees to work on their farms is challenging.

Why it matters: Labour shortages in agriculture are becoming acute. The Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program provides some options for farmers to alleviate challenges finding employees.

Espinola, like many of the others in the TFW program, has years of experience in hog farming in the Philippines. That is highly attractive to Canadian farms looking to find any sort of experience with hog production in Canadian applicants.

Blair Cressman, president of Huntingfield Farms, the company that owns the 2500-sow farm between Mildmay and Gorrie says the Filipino workers have provided stability to the farm and to the sows in the barns.

“We’re very pleased with the level of knowledge of staff brought in and how quickly they have adapted to in-barn processes and tasks. We provide some basic training, but their knowledge level and expertise in animal husbandry is exceptional,” he said in an interview at the farm in the house where the temporary foreign workers, including Espinola, live.

Espinola worked on a similar-sized hog farm in the Philippines, with 2400 sows, but farrow to finish. The Huntingfield farm is farm to wean. There were 26 employees on the farm in the Philippines, but here eight employees work in the two barns on site. There’s much more automation here.

Espinola says she used to hand feed sows in the Philippines, whereas in Canada, the sows are fed by an automated system.

Espinola says it is difficult living away from her family, although they have done it before due to job opportunities in her home country. She has been in Canada for a couple of months.

“For me it was a big decision. I started making the decision because of my low salary in Philippines and so I decided to work here in Canada,” she said. Her husband also is a hog farm worker, but she says she is the more talkative person and wanted to take this step to support her family, while her husband is more reserved.

Filipinos learn English in school as their second language and so have an easier time adapting to both work and life in Canada, says Cressman. Some farmers with TFWs from other countries have changed the language spoken in their barn, as it has been easier for the farmer to learn a new language than a staff of foreign workers.

Espinola is eager to improve her English and speaks it in the barn with her Canadian co-workers. She says she has found some Canadians easier to understand than others.

In many ways Espinola’s story is not new in Canada. Migrants in the past left their families in Europe to establish a home base in Canada before being joined later by spouses and children. Some have left parents and siblings in their countries of origin.

“Many in the agriculture community, especially in Ontario, are not that far removed from being immigrants,” says Andrea DeGroot, managing director for the Ontario Pork Industry Council. “They are one or two generations away. We see in a lot of cases employers have empathy for people coming in with new culture or language.”

A major change for employers is the need to support their TFWs in the first half year after their arrival, including trips to town for supplies, banking and personal necessities.

Unlike immigrants to farming of the past, most who arrive to work on farms are now part of the relatively rigid structure of the Temporary Foreign Workers program. Workers in the TFW program have two-year work visas. That’s in contrast to the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program in which workers from outside of the country come to provide harvest labour.

After the two years, they can return home and then reapply for another two-year work visa. It’s at that point that they can also apply for permanent residency status, which can then start the process of reuniting with family in Canada, if that’s the desire, and eventually Canadian citizenship. Immigration is a goal for some of the workers, but others are motivated to work in Canada to send their better earnings back home to help family.

There are about 10 million Filipinos who work abroad. The money they send back is about 10 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product of the Philippines or $31 billion each year according to a recent National Geographic report.

The Philippines government has recognized both the economic value and the effect on its citizens of the export of its people around the world. It has created an agency that tracks and supports its citizens, but the employers of foreign workers have to pay its costs. That’s an extra expense, says Cressman, which is a challenge with workers from the Philippines.

Other Ontario hog farmers employ workers from Spanish-speaking countries like Guatemala and also workers from Ukraine, along with east Asian countries like the Philippines.

Patience is key

Farms who look to the TFW program are usually strapped for help and want their workers right away, but Cressman and DeGroot say that patience is needed.

The system is based on the efficiency of government processing, which varies greatly.

OPIC has an 18-page guide to the TFW program and hosts regular update meetings for the program that is constantly changing. When the organization first started creating resources on the TFW program a couple of years ago it held a meeting expecting 20 people and got 90.

A recently announced change, now at the consultation phase, will allow TFWs to change employers if they wish to, as long as it is within the same sector. So hog farm workers could move to other hog farms.

“Employers have spent time and money to get them here, but they might not have stability for a 24-month period,” said DeGroot. “If the temporary foreign worker comes here and the environment isn’t what they expect and something is not good for them, there is already a process for them to leave and move to another employer.”

DeGroot isn’t sure how many TFWs are working on Ontario hog farms, as the numbers she has are several years old, and the program’s use here has been growing quickly in the past two years.

Cressman also works with Synergy Systems, one of the largest swine production organizations in the province. It was a group of Synergy producers and partners who together purchased the Huntingfield Farm operation a couple of years ago. He says Synergy sees opportunity in helping other producers manage through the TFW process.

It starts with a Local Market Impact Assessment (LMIA). That’s the assurance given to the federal government that there’s no one in the local area who can fill the job.

For Cressman that meant advertising the position locally, with all of the benefits of the potential position a TFW could be given, including the requirement for a temporary foreign worker to be supplied a home, along with any potential salary increases over the two years of the work visa. That means that even if a TFW proves exceptional, the employer has to stick with the previous commitment on wages.

“In general they have streamlined the LMIA process but you have to be patient. It will take four to six months from when you start the process to when you will have staff on the ground,” says Cressman.

Once it is determined there’s no local candidate, a consultant is usually used in a foreign country to find workers. In this case, hiring people with years of experience working in a hog barn was an easy decision once they were found.

There are also requirements for auditing, which have been increasing.

“That’s one of the changes that came in in last revision to the program,” says Cressman. “It’s very fair and we have no concerns about it.”

Technology drives efficiency and lessens homesickness

Inexpensive technology makes connecting with someone around the world as easy as someone next door. Cressman interviewed Espinola via Skype and she can keep in touch with her family via Facebook Messenger whenever she wants. It’s not the same as being there, at all, but it’s a connection that wasn’t there for previous migrants around the world.

The employees have internet access in the house and they have a television and a laptop computer for their use.

For now, Cressman or another employee takes them on trips to Listowel, about 20 minutes away, or Mildmay about 10 minutes away, for groceries, banking and other necessities. Espinola is already working on attaining her driver’s licence and Cressman says he is looking into English classes, likely in Listowel. Polishing her English is a priority.

Her long-term goal is to bring her family with her to Canada.

“We recognize that Helen is very open and desires to make a long-term opportunity here for her and her family. When we see that from a staff member and they are engaged at that level, we do what we can to support them through the process,” says Cressman. “I am making friends and colleagues and we as a business are excited to support families who will be future Canadian citizens. That’s really neat.”

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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