Agricultural business owners who employ seasonal migrant workers have been keeping a close eye on news headlines recently. That’s because Employment and Social Development Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are expected to publish findings from a review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).
The most recent phase of the review included a national call-out for evidence-based research from groups impacted by the program, to be reviewed by an independent contractor. While former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government conducted a review and overhaul of the system in 2014, many groups still see opportunity for significant changes and improvements.
More than one-third (34 per cent) of Canadian farmers use the program and of those who use it, 94 per cent said it does address some of their labour shortage problems, according to a 2014 survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).
However, Canadian farms are facing a labour gap of 52,000 positions, according to the Canadian Farming Association (CFA). And the new Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) processes — where employers must prove there is no Canadian worker available to fill the positions — are causing delays and complications for urgent labour needs.
“One concern many of our members have is the time it takes to process the requests, get the permits issued, and get workers here,” said Linda Delli Santi, executive director of the B.C. Greenhouse Growers’ Association in Surrey.
As of Sept. 2018, the number 1 limitation on sales or production growth for farmers was a shortage of skilled labour, followed by a shortage of unskilled and semi-skilled labour, said Mandy D’Autremont, director of market intelligence and agri-business at the CFIB in Toronto.
“One of our agri-business members told us about her frustration that their operations slowed instead of expanding in 2016, only because they couldn’t find employees.”
Eighty-two per cent of farmers believe the federal government should make the program easier to use, found the CFIB survey.
There are definitely some challenges with process, according to Reg Ens, executive director at the B.C. Agriculture Council in Abbotsford.
“When you’re dealing with multiple government departments, multiple layers of government, and multiple regulators, it’s a very fragmented area and there are competing jurisdictions. So, ensuring you’re following all the rules, that you’re putting everything in place to get applications (done) quickly and efficiently, is a challenge.”
For the farming industry, it’s not always possible to plan every detail well in advance.
“For seasonal agricultural work, timing is so unpredictable and weather-dependent, and some crops are incredibly fussy and there’s a very tight window around when they can be picked,” said Ens.
Another concern for many farmers is the introduction of biometric requirements (fingerprints and a photograph). The new federal requirement for many groups entering Canada will apply to seasonal employees from specific countries in the program whose work permits are issued later than Dec. 18 of this year.
“The implementation of biometrics is a big concern,” said Ens. “We’re not confident that the government has investigated adequately to understand the practical nature of what they’re asking employees to do.”
For a worker in rural Mexico, for example, the extra trip to and from Mexico City is lengthy and cost-prohibitive, he said.
“It’s like someone in Canada travelling from Prince George to Ottawa and back again. To a worker with limited financial wherewithal, that presents a problem and we’re concerned about what that’s going to mean.”
The program should incorporate a “trusted employer” provision, as originally suggested by former immigration minister John McCallum, said Ken Forth, ex-officio and labour market chair for the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association in Guelph, Ont.
“If you apply with everything in order — the proof of advertising and the bunkhouse inspection, all of that — and you’ve been making the same application for a certain number of years, that approval should come the same day you submit the paperwork,” he said.
“There’s no reason you have to have analysts within Service Canada giving that application the same level as scrutiny as they would for a relatively new employer.”
If you’ve used the program for so many years with a reasonably unblemished record, there should be a way to avoid jumping through so many hoops, said Delli Santi.
CFIB has proposed another way to streamline processes — an “Introduction to Canada Visa” that would replace the program altogether.
“It would be geared toward all skill levels, including entry-level workers, and would be a first step to permanent residency,” said D’Autremont.
In this program, the foreign worker would agree to work for two years with an employer while integrating into Canadian society before being granted permanent resident status.
The possibility of citizenship is appealing to many of the workers who come to Canada, said Dianna Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada in Montreal.
“We’re currently in a situation where people can be coming here to work for decades and they still have no clear pathway to permanent residency,” she said.
That’s something many workers’ rights groups would like to see changed.
“The seasonal agriculture worker program has been running for over half a century,” said Syed Hussan, co-ordinator of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change in Toronto.
“It’s a permanent program and a permanent need, so we believe there needs to be a permanent solution, and that solution is permanent resident status upon arrival for agricultural workers.”
This happens routinely in this country for workers in many other industries, he said.
Almost 300,000 people enter Canada this way — with a permanent residency status — every year, said Hussan.
“We just want to make sure agriculture workers are not excluded.”
Roadblocks to benefits
Another challenge is that workers often encounter roadblocks if they need medical care or want to use other social programs.
“They pay into some of those social protection programs but then aren’t able to access them,” said Bronson.
“We’ve seen a number of situations where access to health care has been very precarious for migrant workers, where they had to pay upfront. Even if they get reimbursed afterward, that’s not feasible for many of them.”
“Our food system depends very much on the migrant workers. We’re shipping in the workers to produce this food, and yet not giving them the full employment rights that all Canadians have access to,” she said.
“There’s a fundamental misfit there that, over time, we need to correct. I think we have an opportunity in front of us to get it right.”
In the meantime, there’s still a labour shortage in agriculture to address, and it’s expected to get worse in the coming years, said D’Autremont. The TFWP program offers a solution.
“It’s important that the program remain viable and accessible for those businesses who need it the most,” she said.
The program is running well, with just a few exceptions, and it’s hoped little will change with the review, according to Forth.
“I want common sense to prevail,” he said. “This program works for the farm community, it works for Canadians because it gives us local food produced here, with better labour rules and better food safety rules. And it also provides a livelihood for the 35,000 workers who come here every year.”
Melissa Campeau is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
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