Halfway through another strong growing season in Ontario, a seasonal labour program created more than half a century ago continues to prove its worth and puts fresh, local food on dinner tables across the province.
More than 1,450 Ontario farms are tapping into the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) this summer to fill job vacancies that would make it impossible for them to grow labour-intensive crops like fruit and vegetables.
Approximately 18,000 seasonal workers from Mexico and the Caribbean are supplementing local labour on Ontario farms through SAWP, ensuring crops can be planted, tended and harvested for market.
“Without a steady supply of reliable seasonal workers, many farms and greenhouses simply wouldn’t have enough hands on deck to do the work required to grow local produce,” says Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (F.AR.M.S.), which administers the program.
One of the key factors that sets SAWP apart from many other temporary foreign worker programs is the hands-on oversight and involvement of government officials in Canada and all participating countries.
The federal government and the Province of Ontario regularly monitor the program and ensure participating growers are adhering to all labour and housing laws. Farms employing seasonal workers are subject to random integrity audits by the federal government to identify any issues of non-compliance.
Seasonal workers employed through SAWP sign contracts that guarantee them all of the protections and benefits that Canadian workers receive, including WSIB, certain EI benefits and provincial health care coverage.
Each country participating in SAWP maintains a year-round liaison service or consular office in the province to help look after the general welfare of agricultural workers. The liaison services are instrumental in recruiting and selecting the best candidates for placement of successful applicants each year on Ontario farms.
Liaison staff also act as advocates for the workers and help them with anything they need 24 hours a day — whether that’s a medical emergency, help with paperwork or help with issues they may be having at home while working here.
The vast majority of men and women who find seasonal employment at Ontario farms through SAWP are grateful for the opportunity for well-paying work they can’t get at home. Approximately 85 per cent of the workers opt to return on repeat contracts in an average year — many of them have been working through the program over the course of decades.
“SAWP workers can earn as much as 10 times or more working here than they could in their own countries, if they’re fortunate enough to find employment,” says Forth. “The program allows the workers to improve the standard of living of their families, educate their children and buy and operate businesses and farms at home.”
A 2016 report by the Conference Board of Canada found that agricultural labour shortages had doubled over the previous decade and are projected to double again in the coming decade. The report, based on three years of labour market research, projects Canada’s agricultural sector will be short approximately 114,000 workers by 2025.
The persistent shortage of domestic workers is costing Canadian farms approximately $1.5 billion per year and hurting Canada’s overall economic competitiveness, according to the study.
About the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program:
More information about Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) can be found at www.farmsontario.ca