Canadian farmers who use the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) or other Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) platforms for the necessary labour on their farms are growing concerned about whether their seasonal migrant workers will arrive in time and ‘Covid-free’ this year.
Holland Marsh farmer Tim Horlings of Hol-Mar Farms, farms about 200 acres of celery, onion, and carrots every year. The family-owned farm has been around since the late ’30s and was originally started by Horlings' grandfather. Currently, the farm is operated by Horlings and his father (Rick) and cousin (Kevin).
Hol-Mar Farm has been participating in SAWP since the late ’60s which provides farmers with labourers from Mexico and Caribbean areas such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago. The federal government program brings in thousands of migrant workers every year on temporary visas to help during planting and harvesting season. In return, the labourers are able to transfer their earnings back home to their families, giving them better opportunities for healthier, safer living conditions.
Horlings’ farm relies on four to nine migrant workers from April – November in order to keep up with the demand. Last year, when Covid hit, Horlings' workers were unable to get to Canada in time for the beginning of the planting season, leaving him scrambling to find help with his farm.
“Last year was a disaster!” exclaims Horlings. “Covid came at this time of year [and] we were a month away from planting and were told our workers were not coming… we didn’t have the help.”
Hol-Mar Farms was not alone; hundreds of farms across Canada were affected by a labour shortage as offshore workers were unable to travel due to temporary visa holdups from government office closures due to the pandemic.
For those migrant workers who were able to have their visas processed, they were then quarantined for two weeks before being able to help on the farms.
Luckily, Horlings was able to get help last-minute help from his family who travelled far to assist with the planting. By mid-May, Horlings’ workers finally arrived but came in two different shifts and had to quarantine separately for two weeks before they could begin their work on his farm.
This year, Horlings’ family members have picked up new employment and are unable to help at the farm; a predicament that has Horlings concerned.
“My main concern is that we need to get our same workers healthy and Covid-free,” shares Horlings. “They’re very skilled workers. We specifically request these same workers every year [because] they know what to do at our farm… our main worker has been with our farm for over 26 years.”
Horlings explains that the Ontario Government is only allowing two chartered flights per week into Pearson International Airport to transport migrant workers into Canada, but workers must have a negative Covid test before and after travelling.
“If the workers get a positive Covid test, they won’t get on the flight, or they might miss their flight and have to wait until the next week,” worries Horlings, noting he has requested his workers two weeks earlier than normal this year to accommodate for any ‘quarantine time’. “These guys do all the ‘grunt’ work: operating harvesting equipment, planting, irrigating, mechanical work, weeding fields… these are our hand labourers and harvesting crew, they do lots of jobs with lots of responsibilities.”
Horlings adds that housing accommodations for migrant workers have also become an issue for farmers as the workers must be spaced out properly in accordance with Covid-regulations.
“Some farms have (or rather, had) workers sleeping in bunk beds,” explains Horlings. “Those farmers spent thousands of dollars redoing their ‘bunkhouses’, converting barns and garages into ‘housing’… it’s costing farmers quite a bit of money to abide by the government rules.”
Horlings suggests that some farmers use to ‘cram’ too many workers into a building and that the pandemic is pushing that change but at the cost of the farmers.
“Some [farmers] are just quitting altogether,” laments Horlings. “In the Marsh, most farmers only have two to four workers, so for us, it’s not difficult to make the changes, but some farms have over 200 workers… how do you spread those workers across 10 different buildings? Where are you going to find the money to do that?”
Horlings notes there are grants available to update facilities on the farms for the workers, but the work must all be done beforehand and then receipts are to be submitted for approval based on a case-by-case scenario.
“What if you don’t get approved? You’re stuck with the bill anyway! So, there are no guarantees,” said Horlings. “In the Marsh, the main issue isn’t so much the housing, it’s whether we get the guys here on time and if they come Covid-free… will they have that negative test? And if they do test positive while here, where will they quarantine?”
In a ‘worst-case scenario’, Horlings said they will hire temporary workers through an agency, but worries they will not have the backgrounds or experience to do the work, and without the history, they will have to ‘retrain’ them.
“It’s long hours at minimum wage… no one wants to do that work,” said Horlings. “They’re planting from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. at $15 an hour… when you live in Mexico and you only make $100 a week... you come here and make that in a day – it’s a no-brainer. They are sacrificing being away from family but their families are having a much better life because of it.”