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Why local farms rely on 'incredibly important' foreign workers

Since 1966, the federal government’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program has allowed Canadian farms to hire temporary workers to help with planting and harvesting, and that demand is only expected to grow

Every year, tens of thousands of foreign workers come to Canada to put down roots — literally.

With planting season well underway, hundreds of foreign workers from Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad/Tobago and eight other Caribbean countries have once again returned to work on nearby farms, including some within the Holland Marsh.

That includes Doug Van Luyk’s family farm in King Township, where he has been working almost his whole life, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

In addition to more typical fields, the farm includes about 500 acres on which Van Luyk grows some of the carrots, onions, beets and parsnips for which the marsh is famous, and he readily admits he wouldn’t be able to do it without the help of the people who come from abroad to work on the farm from April to November each year through the federal government’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP).

Doug Van Luyk walks the field on his family farm in the Holland Marsh where seasonal workers are transplanting onions on Friday morning, May 3. | Michael Owen/BradfordToday

“The seasonal workers are highly beneficial. We need the seasonal worker program,” Van Luyk said. “It’s incredibly important for us on our farms to stay sustainable and to have a workforce that is reliable.”

Started in 1966, SAWP allows Canadian farms to hire workers from Mexico and the Caribbean on temporary visas during the planting and harvesting seasons when local workers are unavailable to fulfil the labour demands.

Van Luyk said his farm has been participating in the program for almost 40 years, through which he usually hires about 10 workers, who he trains in the full gamut of on-farm skills including: planting, weeding, harvesting, and operating and repairing machinery.

“They do everything on our farm,” he said.

While some may choose to leave the program or decide to work on a different farm, most return, according to Van Luyk, who said several have been coming to the farm for 10 to 20 years.

“I’ve got one guy that’s been on this farm 34 years, and his son is here too,” he said. “Quite often if they come on the farm, they stay.”

One draw is likely the wages, which are currently set by the federal government as $16.71 per hour, compared to Jamaica for example, where the minimum is currently $13,000 in Jamaican dollars per week, which is only about C$2.83 per hour.

One of the two kitchens, and some of one the two living areas, are seen inside a bunkhouse for seasonal workers on Doug Van Luyk’s family farm in the Holland Marsh. | Michael Owen/BradfordToday

Van Luyk’s farm offers more than just wages though, and the mandatory lodging was upgraded about two years ago after he invested about $500,000 to build a brand new bunkhouse with room for 12 people, featuring private bedrooms, air conditioning, on-site laundry, two full kitchens, two full bathrooms and two living rooms with big-screen TVs.

“They’ve got everything — they live like we live,” Van Luyk said. “We want the guys to be comfortable.”

Efforts of that nature by farmers are no surprise to Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Management Services (FARMS), a non-profit organization authorized by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada to co-ordinate requests through SAWP.

A sixth-generation farmer from the Hamilton area, Forth noted that about 80 to 85 per cent of the workers that come to Canada every year are returning to the same farms, even though they could go to others if they chose.

“Most farmers do a great job with their workers, and their workers are very happy,” he said, adding that his family hosts an early Christmas dinner for their workers before they head home in November. “There’s a real feeling of family to a lot of us with these people.”

Responding to criticisms

The program isn’t without its detractors though. In August 2022, CBC reported on an incident in Niagara Region where workers who had come through SAWP and were also members of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) wrote an open letter to Jamaica’s Ministry of Labour asking for help dealing with what they called “systematic slavery,” in which they were “treated like mules” and lived in “crowded rooms with zero privacy,” where “rats eat their food.”

That resulted in then-Jamaican labour minister Karl Samuda visiting Canada to tour farms employing Jamaican workers.

Jamaica remains one the countries participating in the program, which isn't unexpected to Forth, who said he knew Samuda and understood the situation wasn’t typical of what most workers experience.

“If you’re giving your workers trouble, they’re not coming back to you, but most are coming back year after year,” he said.

Seasonal workers feed transplant onions into a machine which plants them into a field on Doug Van Luyk’s family farm in the Holland Marsh May 3. | Michael Owen/BradfordToday

The marsh is split between York Region and neighbouring Simcoe County, and in 2024 SAWP helped match 1,156 job placements with 52 employers in the former, and 716 job placements with 49 employers in the latter, according to Forth.

The FARMS president also emphasized that Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), a branch of the federal government, regularly performs “very intense audits” of farm employers to ensure they are in compliance with the program and labour regulations, and he estimates that about 97 per cent pass.

That was confirmed by Maja Stefanovska, media relations officer for ESDC, who explained that for the fiscal year 2023-24 the government completed 227 inspections as part of SAWP and just six (or about three per cent) resulted in farms being found non-compliant.

However, 129 (or about 57 per cent), were only found to be in compliance after providing justification to ESDC and/or compensation to workers (if required) over discrepancies for which the farms were initially found non-compliant.

The remaining 92 (or about 40 per cent) were found to be fully compliant.

In addition to those audits, Forth pointed out that local health units are responsible for inspecting bunkhouses to ensure safe and healthy living conditions for workers.

While not all migrant workers necessarily live in bunkhouses, in the last full calendar year of 2023, York Region Public Health inspected two bunkhouse units for migrant workers on farms and approved both according to health protection manager Christina Wieder.

The same year, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit inspected 12 bunkhouses for migrant workers, none of which required re-inspection according to its media coordinator, Heather Howe.

Economic impacts and trouble on the horizon

Forth also highlighted the financial importance of the program, not only to individual farmers but to the wider economy.

“Without these people who see opportunity in working on a farm, we wouldn’t have a fruit and vegetable industry of any account in Ontario. We just wouldn’t,” he said.

Taking into consideration the other diverse types of farming in Ontario in addition to fruit and vegetables, including livestock, grains, oil seeds and more, Forth estimates agriculture is the largest industry in the province which is actually owned by Ontario residents.

The impact from that is something he’s seen province wide, but especially in some smaller communities.

“I don’t know what would happen if some of these small towns didn’t have the fruit and vegetable industry near them and have all these thousands of people coming around,” he said. “We hire armies of people that spend money downtown in those small towns and also in big cities.”

Doug Van Luyk invested about $500,000 to build a brand new bunkhouse with room for 12 people, featuring private bedrooms, air conditioning and on-site laundry on his family farm in the Holland Marsh. | Michael Owen/BradfordToday

According to a report titled Sowing Seeds Of Change, Agriculture Labour Market Forecast 2023-2030 published in February 2024 by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, in 2022 the Canadian agriculture sector generated $38.8 billion in gross domestic product and $92.8 billion in agricultural and processed food exports.

The council says those numbers could have been even greater though, as sales lost from the sector because of worker vacancies amounted to about $3.5 billion.

According to the report, that’s part of an ongoing trend which saw an average of 44 per cent of employers in the agriculture industry unable to find all the workers they required in 2022.

“The fruit and vegetable industry will bear the brunt of the domestic labour gap and could be required to fill more than 35,000 jobs during its peak season by 2030,” the report said.

That could make SAWP all the more important for Canada’s farmers and all of us who depend on them for food.

“It’s a great program. I can’t say enough about it,” Forth said. “The truth of the matter is, I wouldn’t be farming if I didn’t have them.”

Michael Owen

About the Author: Michael Owen

Michael Owen has worked in news since 2009 and most recently joined Village Media in 2023 as a general assignment reporter for BradfordToday
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