Temporary foreign workers part of the plan

Farming in Ontario depends on the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program helping producers connect with essential work

Last updated on May 12, 23

Posted on May 11, 23

3 min read

This year marks the 57th year of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which helps connect farmers with the  temporary workers from other countries that help grow and harvest food in Canada.

About 20,000 temporary migrants come to Ontario each year, estimates Ken Forth, the president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, which administers the program. Nationally, that number is about 40,000.

Those workers come mainly from Mexico and Jamaica, with some coming from other Caribbean island states as well.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which migrant agricultural workers come to Canada under, is intended as a last resort for employers who can’t find qualified Canadians to fill the jobs.

Without these workers, Forth says, there would barely be a horticultural or agricultural sector in Ontario.

“There’s some crops, potatoes and processing tomatoes, that are machine harvested, and all that kind of stuff, which gives them a bit of an edge on it, but the hand-picked stuff, which is most of it, whether it be tomatoes or zucchini or tree fruit or whatever, it’s all hand harvested. That stuff would not be here if this program wasn’t here,” he said.

St. Jacobs-based Martin’s Family Fruit Farm brings in 150 to 200 SWAP workers each year, says Greg Nogler, the chief operating officer for the company.

“As a business we could not function without our SWAP team members. They are invaluable in terms of maintaining a healthy and productive orchard operation,” Nogler said.

He says the workers have been pruning, and doing general orchard maintenance and planting new orchards during the early part of the season. Later they will be pruning, thinning the apples, and then harvesting them starting in late August and into early November. He says many of the workers return every year, with some having returned for more than two decades.

“They are an integral part of our team, and we develop strong relationships with them as we would with any other employee. This would include having them participate in company events such as our summer picnic,” he said.

“Most people may not realize the significant contribution these workers make in bringing fresh foods to our tables. They are committed, hard-working and skilled in what they do.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers union has created a union for temporary agricultural workers, saying that exploitation of such workers is prolific in Canada.

“Migrant agricultural workers are vulnerable to abuse. Because of their lack of labour mobility, immigration status, language barriers, and absence of representation, they are subject to wage theft, a lack of health and safety protections, poor housing conditions, and social isolation, often resulting in mental health issues,” stated a 2022 report from the union.

The report found that nine agricultural workers died during their quarantine and during outbreaks at their farms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It also includes accounts from temporary workers detailing pest-infested, crowded bunk houses, inadequate heating and cooling and maintenance in the bunkhouses, inadequate personal protective equipment, and mistreatment from employers. The report states that the workers felt they could not complain or bargain for better working conditions, and fear being terminated by their employers if they do complain.

Forth says these accusations are inaccurate, noting that it is against a farmer’s best interest to mistreat workers.

“[Farmers] understand that if people are pretty happy where they work, you get more out of them. You get better quality products packed or picked,” he said. “If you look at it from a purely cynical business point of view, [farmers] don’t want their business to be hurt.

“But secondly, a lot of these workers have become a heck of a lot more on our farms than just people that work there. The people that have hundreds [of workers], it might be a little bit different, but there’ll be some there that would be like this, but lots of them become like friends and family to us. They just do. They work for us for years.”

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