By Connor Lynch
Eastern Ontario vegetable and crop farmer Mel Foster is flying in 13 Jamaican workers to work his farm. His Ottawa-area farm has relied on them for years. “Canadians don’t want to do this. It’s hard work.” They don’t want to do stoop labour, bent over harvesting, for minimum wage.” But the Jamaicans do.
Farmers across Canada have been short on ag workers for years and farmers have long-relied on migrant workers to fill the gap.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) is betting on a mixture of migrant farm workers and new immigrants to help shore up a growing shortage of labour in the ag sector.
Drawing on a report by the Conference Board of Canada, the OFA said in a commentary last month that Canada’s growing immigrant population and regular influxes of migrant workers are two key elements to resolving a growing labour shortage. “Ontario remains Canada’s largest agricultural employer and we rely heavily on a skilled labour force that is increasingly shrinking,” wrote OFA director Debra Pretty-Straathof.
The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council projected in 2016 that the Canadian agriculture’s labour shortage will hit 114,000 by 2025. That’s 114,000 jobs in the ag sector that will go begging.
Back in 2016, the shortage was already as high as 59,000 unfilled agricultural jobs. Most jobs Canadians couldn’t or wouldn’t do were filled by migrant workers through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which filled about 78 per cent of the shortfall.
Owed to a slowing Canadian birth rate and steadily rising immigration numbers (from about 250,000 per year since 2002, according to Statistics Canada) the OFA thinks that the growing immigrant population will help fill that labour shortage.
But data from Statistics Canada suggest there are problems with that aspiration. From 2008 to 2018, in Ontario, the number of immigrants working in the agriculture sector fell, from 18,500 in 2008 to 11,900 in 2018. In 2008, about 21 per cent of Ontario’s agricultural workforce was made up of immigrants. In 2018, it fell to 15 per cent.
There are real economic and social obstacles to working in the sector for immigrants, said Orlando Ferro, director of immigrant services for Quinte West, in Central Ontario. He ran a project back in 2016 for Syrian refugees with an agricultural background, trying to pair them with farmers or possibly even start their own farms.
But the project ended in 2018, three years after it began. and Ferro is not aware of any of the refugees working on farms or running their own.
One obstacle was timing: Wineries were the most interested ag operations, but the grape harvest coincided with Ramadan, a Muslim tradition of month-long fasting. Refugees were too weak to do the physically demanding job of harvest, Ferro said.
Accommodation was another issue. Although farms that rely on offshore workers have housing, that housing often consists of trailers equipped to deal with the summer months. Refugees with families were looking for more permanent homes, Ferro said.
That meant living in more urban areas, as most immigrants do. According to research released this year by the Ontario-based Mowat Centre, a public policy think-tank, fewer than three per cent of Ontario’s immigrants live in a town or city with a population of fewer than 100,000 people. Over 70 per cent lived in Toronto.
Distance, lack of access to public transit and lack of vehicles meant refugees that wanted to work on farms couldn’t get to them. The seasonality of the work made it less attractive as well, said Ferro, even when farmers stepped up their offers. “One farmer said he would give (the workers) a car, if they committed to commuting.”
A farmer’s access to foreign labour could actually get worse. Local groups, such as the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, have been calling for migrant workers to have access to permanent residence status in Canada, and the OFA wants a provincial immigration program that offers a path to citizenship to include seasonal workers.
Opening it up could backfire. The data suggest that even if immigrants start working in agriculture when they come to Ontario, they don’t stay there. In 2018, less than 0.5 per cent of immigrants worked in the ag sector and that’s down from just shy of one per cent in 2008.
Offer permanent residency and one of the main attractions for foreign workers goes out the window: The buying power they take home with them. Most migrant workers in Ontario are from Mexico and Jamaica. While they earn $14 an hour in Canada, minimum wage in Mexico is CDN $8 an hour and Jamaica’s minimum wage is CDN $1.76 per hour.
Foster, meanwhile, thought the migrant worker programs need more streamlining. “Instead of throwing up more red tape, (the government) should make it easier” to hire foreign workers. The alternative is paying more for food, so farmers can afford to hire Canadian workers, he said.