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New Brunswick producers disagree with province’s ban on temporary foreign workers

New Brunswick shut its borders to temporary foreign workers, leaving province producers in another labour limbo despite requests that they maintain production levels.


May 6, 2020
By Stephanie Gordon


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New Brunswick amended its State of Emergency mandatory order on April 28 and restricted any new temporary foreign workers from entering the province in response to COVID-19.

Premier Blaine Higgs said with so many serious outbreaks of COVID-19 in surrounding jurisdictions, the province’s borders must remain closed for now.

“Under normal circumstances, we welcome foreign temporary workers as they play an important role in New Brunswick’s continued economic growth,” said Higgs in the released announcement. “But right now, the risk of allowing more people to enter the province is simply too great.”

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This restriction does not affect the status of temporary foreign workers currently in the province.

Currently, international flights into Canada are restricted to land in four airports: Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal. For temporary foreign workers travelling to the Eastern Canada, Montreal is the closest airport. Montreal, as of May 6, has 17,442 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

As of May 4, 2020, New Brunswick reported no new cases of COVID-19 in the province for the 16th consecutive day. The number of confirmed and recovered cases in New Brunswick remains at 118.

The number of COVID-19 cases are relatively low when compared to its neighbours Nova Scotia (998 confirmed cases) and Quebec (33,417 cases). Newfoundland and Labrador reported 259 confirmed cases and Prince Edward Island reported 27 confirmed cases.

To maintain New Brunswick’s low numbers, the provinces borders remain closed – despite temporary foreign workers being allowed into other provinces.

Mixed messages: agriculture industry responds

The National Farmers Union in New Brunswick, Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick (AANB), and Really Local Harvest published a statement in response strongly disagreeing with the province’s decision.

In the statement, Tim Livingstone, co-owner of Strawberry Hill Farm, explains the contradictory messaging, “They want us to increase vegetable production but want us to hire people who may leave at the drop of a hat or before our season has finished.”

The organizations explain that it would be “difficult, if not impossible” for farms to hire temporary foreign workers or any other workers mid-season.

“Even if employees from other sectors or students are put in their place, when the other jobs re-open and school starts, no one will be there to bring in the harvest,” the statement reads.

The organizations note that “federal and provincial governments have moved mountains in the last months” to remove travel restrictions while ensuring the safety of incoming workers.

In British Columbia, for example, the province is housing all incoming temporary foreign workers for seasonal farm work in government-managed accommodations for the duration of the mandatory 14-day self-isolation period. British Columbia is also funding the hotel and food-service costs during the self-isolation period.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) interviewed Chris Michaud, who runs a vegetable farm with his partners in New Brunswick. In a normal year, Michaud employs eight seasonal workers to help with harvest.

The reduced labour capacity faced by producers now conflicts with earlier provincial government messaging that producers maintain their usual production levels to ensure food security in the province.

“We have to reduce our acreage by probably 70 per cent because we don’t feel comfortable planting crops when they can’t be harvested,” Michaud explains in his CFA profile. “This goes totally against the grain of what they told us to do.”

Using local labour

On May 4, 2020, New Brunswick launched a virtual job matching platform, JobMatchNB, to connect workers with open positions.

But the announcement falls short of what’s needed in the sector according to the agriculture groups.

Other provinces, such as Ontario and Alberta, have also invested in online job portals for agriculture without restricting temporary foreign workers.

“Our members hire people from their communities every year. The sad fact is that for many of these people the experience does not last long when they realize the physical demands of the job and the complexity of the tasks. It has nothing to do with the idealized version of working in the wild that some imagine,” said Lisa Ashworth, president of AANB, in a May 3 joint-statement.

In Michaud’s CFA profile he expresses the same sentiment, “Every other farmer I’ve talked to in the province says that it takes a minimum of four locals to replace one foreign worker, just because of how hard these people work and the training they have.”

AANB conducted a survey with 18 New Brunswick producers who hire temporary foreign workers and they estimated, as a total, that they could lose $6,965,000 in product and time spent on training new staff if temporary foreign workers are not allowed in.

“Our farmers feed the province. Their work is vital to the survival of us all. The simplistic solution put forward by the Premier comes at our expense,” said Kent Coates, president of Really Local Harvest, in the May 3 joint-statement. “For the agricultural sector here to continue to supply the population with food, we need these temporary foreign workers.”

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