Hamilton-area broccoli grower Ken Forth will remember the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions of 2020 as a nerve-wracking nightmare for fruit and vegetable growers because of their dependence on foreign labourers.
Farmers have been through an extremely stressful year when vital farm labour was always in peril, said Forth, who is also president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS), a non–profit organization that arranges recruitment and transportation of foreign agricultural workers.
“If one of my guys got sick in mid-June or July I’d be done,” he said. “There’s nobody else to harvest the crop. It’s a much bigger gamble than the roulette table in Vegas.”
He added that some operations were forced to shut down because of quarantine requirements when workers tested positive to COVID-19.
In a typical year Ontario farms bring in about 22,000 foreign workers to tend and harvest a variety of crops. He estimates that number was reduced by several thousand this year because of border restrictions. Some countries like Jamaica kept their migrant worker programs active and were ready to go in mid-March when foreign agriculture workers were exempted from a ban on non-residents entering the country.
Jamaica and Mexico are the biggest suppliers of foreign workers and Forth said Mexico shut down its program down for a while and then got off to a slow start because of computer problems. Trinidad and Tobago didn’t send any workers for months.
Asparagus growers were especially impacted by delays, he said. “They took a significant hit because they just couldn’t get people in time to harvest that crop.”
As the year progressed about 1,300 foreign farm workers in Ontario tested positive for the virus and three died. Most recently, 40 migrant farmers working at an apple orchard in Elgin County tested positive for COVID-19 in early November.
Forth added that farmers are being unfairly targeted at a time when all industries are struggling with the pandemic. He said the vast majority of farmers treat their workers well and made a great effort to keep them safe during the pandemic.
“Agriculture is being attacked by all sides but we are doing a great job with our workers ,” he told Farmers Forum.
Forth hired about 18 workers from Jamaica to harvest his crops of broccoli and onions. He said his workers rarely left the farm and were always careful when they were in the community because they didn’t want to get sick and miss 14 days of work. “The workers took this more seriously than the general public. They didn’t want to go out. ”
Forth said farmers are motivated to treat their workers well and ensure they will return, because they are essential to their business. “If we don’t have workers, we don’t have a business. Along the way these people became as good as family to us,” he said.
Forth said critics focused on housing but that is not an issue. His farm’s bunkhouse successfully passed five inspections this year by local, provincial and federal officials, he said.
He is concerned, however, about proposed new national standards for foreign worker housing. The proposal could limit the number of workers who share sleeping quarters, washrooms and eating facilities, he said. He added that he heard from a number of farmers who told him that they fear the cost of meeting new housing requirements could drive them out of business.
Farmers have until December 22, 2020 to provide feedback on the Temporary Foreign Worker program. For more information or to provide feedback, contact Employment and Social Development Canada by sending an email to NC-TFWP-APT-PTET-EPA-GD@hrsdc-rhdcc.gc.ca.
In November, Ontario Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman announced a new strategy to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among migrant farm workers. The strategy includes 35 recommendations to improve worker safety including limiting workers to one job site and increasing communication with workers about their access to health care and employment services, The provincial government is also pledging $26.6 million in funding to bolster pandemic workplace protections.
Forth assumes the migrant labour program will be in place next year and says thousands of workers have already been cleared by the federal government to return next season. But after a chaotic year, he is reluctant to make predictions.
“I think it’s going to get better right next year, but right now it’s getting worse. Everything could change tomorrow.”