Grown locally, harvested globally: temporary foreign workers are essential to our ag sectors

Recent restrictions placed on the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program in Canada have revealed the fragility of the Canadian food supply chain according to a new report from Robert Falconer, policy analyst with the University of Calgary’s Simpson Centre School of Public Policy.

Falconer recently joined Shaun Haney on RealAg Radio to discuss the report, and the valuable role that TFWs play in Canadian agriculture.

“Currently, TFWs make up about 20 per cent of workers in the sector,” says Falconer, and the agriculture sector does rely on TFWs. However, with the pandemic situation, there’s been a 14 per cent drop in the arrival of TFWs this year.

In general, over the years with mechanization and consolidation of farms, there’s been a decline in domestic participation in terms of employees in Canada, and simply put, farms are getting bigger, says Falconer. “When a farm buys out, let’s  say another outfit, they don’t get the family outfit that comes with it,” says Falconer, so the people that would’ve worked on that farm have to be replaced.

Although many Canadians are currently out of work, replacing TFWs with Canadian workers may not be practicable, according to Falconer. Canadians simply don’t want to do these highly seasonal jobs, or are waiting out the pandemic until they can return to their regular job. Furthermore, these jobs are often labour intensive, hard on your body, and require putting in long hours.

People outside of the industry think that if there’s work to be had Canadians can do it, but it’s easier said than done. Finding enough Canadian workers to work on farms, ranches, or in food-processing plants in sufficient numbers to replace TFWs may not be feasible, the report says.

The goals of the report are to highlight the vital role TFWs play in the industry. “I had a conversation with the Mexican consulate the other day, and they also see it as a sign of the relationship they have with Canada, and saying they’re actually quite proud that their workers can contribute to Canadian agriculture,” says Falconer. It’s somewhat of a relationship-building exercise between countries — Mexico is just one example. Also, workers in these sectors aren’t easily replaced, mechanization is happening, but there will always be a labour gap.

One of many reasons that producers like TFWs is that they’re reliable — they work good hours, tend to take fewer sick days, and come back year after year. The Agrifood Pilot program may be the link for those TFWs that occupy more permanent or full time positions to the path to permanent residency (PR). Roughly 94 per cent of TFWs working in the transportation sector, in particular, become permanent residents and end up keeping their jobs after they’ve achieved PR status.

Data proves that farmers have been providing real wages — wages above inflation — to TFWs since the ’50s. The perception that the agriculture sector isn’t willing to pay TFWs a living wage just isn’t true, Falconer says. In addition to wages, ensuring safe arrival to Canada and safe work and living environments will be critical if the agriculture sectors are to keep moving.

One way that the government can ensure that farms can continue their operations, and who rely on TFWs for agriculture work, is to provide EI or some type of sickness benefits, says Falconer. If they have these benefits, TFWs are more likely to take a sick day, preventing any illness from spreading to their coworkers, and helping to eliminate the risk of the sector having to shut down.

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