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Canadian government invests $58.6 million in Temporary Foreign Worker Program amid COVID-19 outbreaks on farms


August 2, 2020
By Stephanie Gordon


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The Canadian government committed an investment of $58.6 million into the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program to increase supports for temporary foreign workers, reform the employer inspections program, and improve living and working conditions on farms.

Carla Qualtrough, minister of employment, and Marie-Claude Bibeau, minister of agriculture and agri-food, announced the investment on July 31.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government took steps to ensure the safe arrival of farm workers. The steps included providing financial support for employers to ensure mandatory requirements during quarantine were met and to ensure additional health and safety measures were put in place on farms. Despite these investments, there have been COVID-19 outbreaks on number of Canadian farms that have significantly impacted the health and safety of workers, including the death of three workers.

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The $58.6 million investment will go toward strengthening the TFW program in three areas:

  • Investing $7.4 million to increase supports to temporary foreign workers, including $6 million for direct outreach to workers delivered through migrant worker support organizations;
  • Strengthening the employer inspections regime, particularly on farms, and making improvements to how tips and allegations of employer non-compliance are addressed (such as by initiating an inspection) through an investment of $16.2 million; and
  • Investing $35 million to improve health and safety on farms and in employee living quarters to prevent and respond to the spread of COVID-19. This will go toward direct infrastructure improvements to living quarters, temporary or emergency housing (on- or off-farm), as well as PPE, sanitary stations, and any other health and safety measures. Non-repayable contributions will be cost-shared 50:50 with the applicants.

The government also will work to develop mandatory requirements to improve employer-provided accommodations, focusing on ensuring better living conditions for workers. As a first step, according to the announcement, the Government will consult with provinces and territories, employers, workers and foreign partner countries on a proposal for these mandatory requirements for the TFW Program in the months to come, and will work with those same partners to implement changes.

“From the very beginning of the pandemic, the health and safety of temporary foreign workers has been a top priority. Any unsafe working conditions are completely unacceptable. While we are proud of the worker protections we have in this country, we recognize that there are important issues that need to be addressed within the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and we are taking action. We are working tirelessly to ensure that temporary foreign workers rights are protected in Canada,” said Carla Qualtrough, minister of employment, in a released statement.

“We care deeply about the well-being of all farm workers, who are helping ensure the food security of Canadians. During the exceptional circumstances of COVID-19, we want to help farmers adapt and improve the employment conditions of all their employees as well as the living environment of temporary foreign workers,” added Minister of Agriculture Bibeau.

Support for Windsor-Essex

To support the response to the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 cases amongst temporary foreign workers in Windsor-Essex County, the Government of Canada is also currently collaborating with the Canadian Red Cross and the Province of Ontario to set up temporary housing for those affected in order to support them to self-isolate, in accordance with public health guidance. This work is being advanced under the Government’s previous commitment to provide up to $100 million to the Canadian Red Cross to support additional relief and recovery efforts this year related to COVID-19, floods and wildfires.

How Canada handled the arrival of TFWs

Approximately 50,000 to 60,000 foreign agricultural, food and fish processing workers coming to work in Canada each year, which accounts for more than 60 per cent of all foreign workers entering Canada under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Most foreign workers who work on farms are located in Ontario (40 per cent), Quebec (32 per cent), B.C. (18 per cent) and Nova Scotia (2.6 per cent).

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) is the stream most commonly used by agricultural producers. In 2019, a total of 46,707 positions were approved under the SAWP, of which 12,858 were from the participating Caribbean countries, the rest were from Mexico.

This spring, the Government of Canada published guidance for employers on how to manage the arrival and quarantining of exempt travellers to Canada, including temporary foreign workers to mitigate the importation and spread of COVID-19. In addition, the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion and the Minister of Health issued a letter to employers of temporary foreign workers outlining the Government of Canada’s expectations of employers.

As well, the Government put in place amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations to hold employers accountable and to keep workers safe. These changes require employers to pay workers during their initial quarantine and ensure workers are able to observe the two-week quarantine period. To help these efforts, the Government of Canada announced the $50 million Mandatory Isolation Support for Temporary Foreign Workers Program to help farmers and food processors pay for the costs related to safely accommodating workers for the mandatory 14-day quarantine period. Today’s $35 million fund extends supports beyond the 14-day period.

Despite these supports and higher penalties, The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change released a report on June 8 that detailed complaints made on behalf of over a thousand migrant workers that provided a different picture of working conditions. The report details workers’ experiences with wage theft, lack of COVID-19 precautions by their employer, poor housing conditions and increased surveillance.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program is managed by Employment and Social Development Canada, but provinces and territories are responsible for most health, employment standards and housing requirements.

Each province handled the arrival of TFWs differently, and British Columbia – despite experiencing an early outbreak of COVID-19 in March – was praised for the way it handled the arrival of migrant workers. B.C. invested in a $10-million program to quarantine migrant workers in hotels while paying for their food and accommodation. Other provinces took difference approaches, such as New Brunswick, which temporarily banned the arrival of seasonal agricultural workers despite the strong disagreement from the province’s agricultural sector. Ontario, which suffered the most farm outbreaks, didn’t have a similar provincial-led approach and some of the COVID-19 outbreaks on Ontario farms can be traced to local recruitment agencies whose contract workers moved from farm to farm instead of from the actions stemming from the initial arrival.

A list of Canadian government resources for temporary foreign workers and COVID-19: