One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, farm organizations are cautiously optimistic that they can find a way to bring migrant workers into Canada safely and efficiently despite stricter regulations on travel and workplace safety.
The fruit and vegetable sector in particular is coming off a stressful year which saw three foreign farm workers die from the virus and about 1,300 foreign farm workers test positive.
Keith Currie, an Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) director and former president said he was quoted out of context in a recent article that was widely reported in the media.
The article said the OFA is asking the federal government to waive a requirement that foreign farm workers get COVID-19 test before flying to Canada.
Currie said he was commenting on some past issues and was misinterpreted in the article.
“We are in support of where the government is going on pre-screening,” he said. “We just hope it does not create issues on workers being able to get here . . . At no point in time were we looking for a waiver,” he said.
Currie said farms should be subject to the same safety regulations facing other industries.
“We have to keep our workplaces safe just like every other workplace out there. It shouldn’t be any more strict than anywhere else. We have workers coming that we desperately need, so let’s work together to get the best situation we can. ”
Currie also hopes farmers can get a fair shake from the news media this year regarding safety measures for migrant workers.
“Mainstream media did not do a good job in reporting the complete story and it ticked off a lot of people in agriculture,” Currie said.
He said foreign workers were free from COVID-19 when they entered Canada and did their best to ensure safety and minimize contact in the community.
“These poor workers were discriminated against severely last summer. People were angry and yelling at them,” Currie said.
Ken Forth, a Hamilton-area broccoli farmer and president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS) agreed with Currie.
“I want these guys tested,” Forth said. “We are not asking for an exemption. That would be irresponsible,” he said.
Forth said there was a brief panic late in January when the federal government announced enhanced restrictions on travelers flying in an out of Canada. But federal agriculture officials quickly clarified that foreign farm workers were exempted from those new restrictions affecting leisure travel. But Forth said the curtailing of flights to and from some Caribbean airports may make it difficult for some farm workers to get to Canada.
Forth said fruit and vegetable growers have asked for some flexibility in the regulation that requires the migrant workers to be tested for COVID-19 no more than 72 hours before flying to Canada. Forth said 96 hours would be a more reasonable time frame, given the availability of testing facilities in some areas of Mexico.
“It can take awhile to get a test in Mexico. It’s a big place. We have a challenge getting people tested on time to come to Canada.”
Forth said he is not familiar with the cost of COVID testing in countries that send foreign workers but said he had not heard so far that it has become an issue.
Hector Delanghe is the owner of Delhaven Orchards, near Blenheim, and employs migrant workers at his apple orchard. He expects the first group to arrive in March, Delanghe said it is his understanding that COVID tests in Mexico cost the equivalent of about $25 Canadian, not up to $350 as claimed by a migrants rights advocate.
Delanghe said he called some of his migrant workers from Jamaica last week to get information on any problems they may have in flying to Canada.
Delanghe said it would be unreasonable to expect that migrant farm workers could be exempted from COVID testing before entering the country.
“I think that would be a very hard thing to do,” he said.
Forth said the spread of COVID-19 could throw more curves into the process this year, but the groundwork is getting done to get foreign workers into Canada this year safely and efficiently.
“The federal government said the workers can move and we will get them moved,” Forth said.