Seasonal foreign workers face uncertain timeline to return home due to pandemic-related border crossing restrictions
In the spring Ontario farmers were concerned COVID-19 border closures would stymie efforts to get the much-needed foreign workers into Ontario.
Now it appears the pandemic might be hindering efforts to get those same workers back home to their families.
Why it matters: Smooth operation of the seasonal foreign worker program is critical to the planting and harvesting of Ontario crops.
“As countries around the world take measures at their borders to control the spread of COVID-19, the movement of workers and travellers has been significantly disrupted,” federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said.
The government is aware of temporary foreign workers who came to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago are currently facing additional challenges returning to their country, Bibeau said, and the government is taking steps to rectify the issue.
Bibeau said Canadian officials on the ground in Trinidad and Tobago have taken their concerns directly to the Trinidadian government and are seeking a resolution, she said.
“We also encourage workers to communicate directly with Trinidad and Tobago’s embassy in Canada,” she said.
Mikayla Streef of Streef Produce Ltd. said she is having a similar issue getting the necessary paperwork to get her offshore workers from Jamaica registered to go home.
She said there’d been no issues sending their winter crew home in early July. The process of booking flights, complete registration, approval and receiving their travel authorization was almost immediate.
“That ran so smoothly I wasn’t concerned about doing it all again the second time around,” she
She booked the flights but noticed the application was different from the winter crew.
“It didn’t make sense, it made it seem like the offshore workers were travelling to Jamaica for a holiday,” she said.
Seven days later Streef still hadn’t received an approval or the required travel authorizations and began working with the Jamaican representative to get some answers.
“Offshore workers have been denied at the airport and sent back to their farms at the farmer’s expense, so this travel authorization is important, it’s a requirement,” she said.
“If we don’t see anything soon we’ll need to cancel our flights, which is awful because our workers have airport rides set up and quarantine arrangements made.”
She said the workers just want to get home, get the quarantine process over with and finally get to see the families they have been away from for months.
“What I find crazy is that Jamaica is opening up for tourists,” Streef said. “I could get there faster than their own residents could.”
Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS), said normally the paperwork is filed online with the High Commission in Ottawa and the turnaround is fairly rapid. However, Forth said he’d been in contact with Jamaica and was told they are working on fixing a backlog situation.
Forth said the situation with Trinidad and Tobago is a different story because they aren’t allowing their citizens to return at all.
“I can understand them not allowing you to go down there on vacation or something like that, foreigners,” said Forth. “But these are their citizens, let them go home. We still don’t know what their problem is, we just know they’re not allowing it.”
Forth said they are in communication with the Trinidad and Tobago government and he’s hopeful there will be a change in protocols soon.
Forth said when the Canadian government lifted the restriction for temporary foreign workers to come into Ontario, after COVID-19 shut the borders, they had planes in the air from Jamaica in three days and from Mexico within a couple of weeks.
“Trinidad took four months to come back on. For a long time we didn’t think they were even going to come,” he said, adding they seem to be doing the same thing going the other way.
“We have got approval for thousands of workers to come up here starting the beginning of the year and all through the spring,” he said. “The application situation is normal, it’s the same.”