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Migrant-friendly Canada struggles to attract migrant farm staff

Twenty-three foreign workers tested positive for COVID-19 at a plant nursery in British Columbia this month, and more cases of migrant workers getting infected are popping up in Ontario and Alberta.
Twenty-three foreign workers tested positive for COVID-19 at a plant nursery in British Columbia this month, and more cases of migrant workers getting infected are popping up in Ontario and Alberta.Christinne Muschi/Bloomberg News

Canada traditionally rolls out the welcome mat for seasonal workers to help on the country’s farms. Now it can’t find enough willing to make the journey.

There is scant local interest in farmwork, so Canada’s agriculture sector relies on nearly 60,000 foreign workers to make the journey north each year from countries like Mexico, Jamaica, and Guatemala. This year, however, some migrant laborers are deciding to stay home to protect themselves from the coronavirus, resulting in a dearth in essential foreign labor.

That leaves Canadian farmers desperate to fill a shortage of workers, despite facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. It’s an issue that’s quickly become politicized, with the federal government forced to step in and opposition politicians calling for coronavirus aid programs intended for students and the unemployed to be tied to working in the fields.

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The government is ‘‘exploring additional ways to shore up our domestic labor supply,’’ said Marielle Hossack, spokeswoman for Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough. ‘‘We continue to encourage employers to hire Canadians, and jobs are posted — and continue to be available — for Canadians who are interested.’’

Even as the COVID-19 fallout forces Canada to reduce its new arrivals targets for immigration, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has implemented measures to try and lure seasonal workers north. They include rolling out exemptions from border closures, easing visa renewals for agriculture workers and providing C$50 million ($36 million) to cover mandatory quarantine costs.

It’s still not enough to convince more people to come. Political pressure is mounting to find an alternative labor source locally as Ottawa estimates the shortage at several thousands already with the growing season just beginning.

For the four months to the end of April, 22,000 agricultural workers had arrived to take up jobs from the fruit orchards and vegetable fields of British Columbia to the wine-growing region of Niagara in Ontario. Of the 13,000 projected arrivals for the month of April, only 11,000 workers came.

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Syed Hussan, director at Migrant Workers Alliance for Change in Toronto, said the shortage is being compounded by travel difficulties and public health fears. In many cases the workers’ countries of origin have fewer COVID-19 cases than Canada, and Canadian farms and facilities staffed by migrant workers have witnessed some of the largest workplace outbreaks.

Foreign workers say that not all employers are following the government’s health guidelines and they are worried about their health. One worker from Jamaica, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said this time was unlike the previous 12 years he made the journey. Instead of a commercial plane, he took a crammed chartered flight in April without quarantining for the mandatory 14-day period.

‘‘This year is very very different from previous because when we arrive this year, we have been told to keep safe of this COVID-19, but complying with all rules and regulations is difficult,’’ he said.

He lives in a house with six other men, sharing a kitchen and bathroom. He says the house doesn’t meet health standards and the men have been relying on a local church to provide food donations. A fruit picker, he says he knows people in Jamaica who decided not to come to Canada out of fear of contracting COVID-19.

Stringent workplace health and safety rules need to be in place and enforced to protect workers, according to economist Armine Yalnizyan, who said that they also need the right to refuse work if they feel they may get sick from unsafe practices.

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‘‘Migrant workers are not allowed to not work — if they don’t work, they get deported,’’ she said. ‘‘But they’re getting sick and they’re not allowed access to care or any kind of income support when they are not working because they are sick.’’

Twenty-three foreign workers tested positive for COVID-19 at a plant nursery in British Columbia this month, and migrant workers at meat plants in Alberta have been among the confirmed cases.

A Mexican worker on a mushroom farm in Ontario said he’s been under more pressure this season due to a shortage of labor both as a result of those not arriving and others who have gotten sick on the job. The farm has reported a number of COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks.

The man, who also asked not to be named, lives with five others in a three-bedroom house on the farm. He says the company has given them masks to use for two weeks at a time and has recently implemented temperature testing. If the workers get sick, they have to quarantine at home and do not get paid. He makes C$500 a week and uses that income to support his mother, wife and daughter back in Mexico.

Migrants rights groups are calling for increased protections for workers, including stricter physical distancing and guaranteed pay if they fall ill. The government says it has already strengthened requirements and will punish employers who don’t comply with new COVID-19 regulations with penalties of up to C$1 million and a permanent ban on hiring foreign workers.

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With some provinces closing their borders to migrant labor entirely, the labor shortage shows no sign of abating. Instead, opposition politicians are pressing the government to tie part of its C$9 billion student aid program to agricultural work.

Shifting even some of that money away from direct payments to students and on to employers including farms would ‘‘provide relief for many of the front-line essential services and jobs for students in return for the money,’’ said lawmaker Erin O’Toole, who is vying for the leadership of the main opposition Conservative Party.

Trudeau’s Liberal government says it encourages unemployed Canadians to work in essential sectors including agriculture. But Nicole Brayiannis, deputy chairperson from the Canadian Federation of Students, says that’s impractical.

‘‘A lot of folks take years of training to work up into the positions that they’re in and now just turning to students and saying this is essential work that is available doesn’t make sense,’’ she said.

Meanwhile, the Jamaican fruit picker is dreading harvest season without more support to ease the workload. He earns around C$900 every two weeks and works six days per week, sending his pay home to support six family members.

‘‘When its reaping time in September, I’m worried,’’ he said. Fewer workers means more pressure and longer hours to bring in the harvest. ‘‘I wouldn’t like this to happen again.’’

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