By Patrick Meagher
Last year, an Ontario asparagus grower hired six locals to work on the farm. Not one lasted more than two days. Last month, farmer Stewart Skinner was asked why he doesn’t ease the burden of the current high unemployment and hire locals. He replied: “I’ve offered pressure washing hours to three students out of school in the last two weeks. Total hours worked: Zero. That’s why farmers need (a foreign worker program).”
Stories like these don’t stop busy-bodies from thinking they have just solved the unemployment crisis in a pandemic. A few city columnists and politicians and too many letter writers have been telling Canadian farmers that they should put to work all of those newly unemployed people. After all, they say, those foreigners are taking jobs from Canadians. Two people even called up Farmers Forum to espouse their plan to put the jobless to work on farms.
A recent letter to the editor in an Ontario community newspaper reads: “We are struggling to get seasonal farm workers into the country at the same time we are witnessing more than one million Canadians lose their jobs. Why not utilize some of the unemployed people to fill jobs normally taken by imported labour?”
Sun News columnist Candice Malcolm agreed, arguing that “government is allowing temporary foreign workers to take these vital jobs away from Canadians.”
The only hiccup with putting Canadians to work on the farm, and it’s a big one, is that they don’t want to for $15 per hour.
The truth of the matter is that most Canadians don’t like the hard work of planting and picking and they don’t like the long 10-hour days in the soil under the hot sun. Canadians also don’t like to get dirty and don’t like the isolation of farming. It’s why for years dairy farmers have struggled to find relief milkers, even when they offered higher wages, and why some felt compelled to get around the labour issue by installing robots.
The lack of Canadian farm labour goes back for decades when apple growers couldn’t find locals to harvest. There are now about 25,000 foreign workers, mostly from Jamaica and Mexico, working on Ontario farms each year.
North Gower fruit and vegetable Mel Foster typically hires 15 Jamaicans each year. He also hires 20 or more local students to sell at roadside stands. He argues that the critics of foreign workers have it all wrong.
“These foreign workers are not taking Canadian jobs,” he said. “They are making Canadian jobs. Without these guys harvesting the vegetables, those 20-plus (locals) would not have jobs. We have three or four guys who drive truck and deliver vegetables and they wouldn’t have a job if these guys (Jamaicans) weren’t harvesting our sweet corn, broccoli, pumpkin and squash to deliver to our wholesale customers.”
Farmers have repeatedly said that the foreign workers are top-shelf. They come to Canada with one idea in mind: To earn money to send back to their families. They work harder than Canadians and they always show up for work. And why wouldn’t they? They live on the farm, not at home, and have no distractions. Said one Eastern Ontario farmer: “Canadians would rather work in town at Tim Hortons for the same wage.”
Foster argues that farmers cannot count on newly unemployed Canadians if they are suddenly called back to their former jobs. “What happens when they work for us for a month of two and then when they go back (to their former jobs) in mid-June when the strawberries start to harvest, what about the farmer? The farmer is screwed.”
Another obstacle is that many farm jobs require specific skills and workers must be trained. Put new workers in the field on day one for say, pruning, and the results could be disastrous.
That said, the federal government was still hoping that Canadians could fill some farm jobs. P.E.I. senator Diane Griffin suggests that if Canadians were paid more they might show up. “Money is an important motivator,” she said.
Canadian might not like hard, dirty work. But they like money. If the government can top up income and pay a handsome bonus to those who stick it out until the end of harvest, this might indeed be a one-off solution in specific cases in uncertain times.
Want a planting and picking job on the farm? Proposed income boost hopes to make farming enticing
By Patrick Meagher