With a majority of temporary foreign workers now in Canada and still continuing to arrive, questions of worker safety and economic support take centre stage.
May 20, 2020 By Stephanie Gordon
Despite COVID-19 delays, Canada welcomed nearly 22,000 agricultural workers in Canada by the end of April, compared with about 25,500 at the end of April in 2019.
Based on these figures, Canada has 86 per cent of the seasonal agricultural workforce it had last year.
Glen Lucas, general manager with the B.C. Fruit Growers Association (BCFGA), explains that the temporary foreign worker travel ban made for a busy season.
“Certainly it’s been busy, but that’s the life of a producer association, it’s to step up when things get tough and to try and find solutions when things aren’t working as well as they should be,” Lucas says.
So far, according to a report from CBC in British Columbia, some 1,549 temporary foreign workers who arrived in B.C. have gone through, or are in the process of completing, the federally required 14-day isolation.
The process was not without its hiccups. The Western Agriculture Labour Initiative (WALI) balanced health protocols, charter flights, and delays from other countries, when ensuring the travel of seasonal workers.
WALI’s May 9 travel update states that WALI is continuing to coordinate charter and commercial flights “until things stabilize and the necessary workers have arrived in B.C.” While 100 workers successfully arrived on a commercial flight in the second week of May, WALI says that these commercial flights have been prone to last minute cancellations and therefore the organization is still making use of charter flights.
In addition to commercial flight cancellations, some Mexican states have implemented travel restrictions making it difficult or impossible for workers to reach Mexico City. WALI is monitoring the situation closely but says producers should be aware that this increases the risk of workers being a no-show for flights. As of May 18, Mexico issued a call to lift emergency COVID-19 measures in municipalities without confirmed COVID-19 cases, but some local authorities are still proceeding with caution.
COVID-19 cases among agriculture workers
In B.C., CBC reported eight temporary foreign workers tested positive for COVID-19 while quarantined by the province in hotels. Seven workers have been cleared and the eighth person, as of May 13, remained in isolation.
Similar good news was reported for the 23 workers who tested positive for COVID-19 at Bylands Nurseries in West Kelowna, B.C. and have fully recovered. The business was able to fully reopen in mid-May.
“It’s all about COVID-19, getting workers here, making sure they’re safe, making sure our farmers are safe as well and the communities,” Lucas says.
“I think a lot of those [food safety] practices, and if there’s some additional hand washing stations and sanitary facilities, that will help us in future years as well even when we don’t have COVID-19,” Lucas adds.
In Ontario, Greenhill Produce in Chatham-Kent suffered an outbreak of COVID-19 at the end of April, temporarily losing almost half of its workforce. CBC reported that Chatham-Kent Public Health says 50 of the workers who tested positive for the disease have fully recovered and are now back to work.
Not at the end of the road
Despite all the efforts, the ramifications of COVID-19 will still bleed into the growing season.
“I think we’re not at the end of road . . . in order to ensure food security and the economic contribution, there’s more that needs to be done,” Lucas says.
Even with a substantial number of seasonal workers within the country, growers are still faced with new norms around selling online and maintaining usual production levels despite a reduced labour capacity.
However, Lucas does commend the B.C. government for stepping up to help house temporary foreign workers saying it’s been a relief for growers.
“We’ve made a really healthy start with the federal announcements of the $1,500 to cover some of the extra costs of the travel delay and the two-week quarantine period that’s required. In B.C. our province stepped up by housing workers during that quarantine period and paying for that and the food, so that’s been a relief,” Lucas says.
Prince Edward Island also stepped forward to house incoming seasonal workers at provincial sites.
The federal government also announced an investment of more than $252 million to support Canadian farmers, food businesses, and food processors. The financial support is split up across multiple streams to help producers adapt their practices, boost food processing capacity in Canada, and minimize food surpluses. Provinces are also stepping up providing their own funding around health and safety protocols, or in the case of P.E.I., $4.7 million in funding support for its potato industry.
To hear more of Glen Lucas’s interview, listen to AgAnnex Talks’ podcast episode on dealing with labour in Canadian agriculture where industry members discuss labour shortages and misconceptions about farm work in Canada.
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