Seasonal workers return to Ontario farms well protected
February 9, 2021 By Ken Forth
Farmers across Ontario are preparing for their second full growing season in the midst of an ongoing pandemic that has made our crucial work even more complicated.
The job of putting top-quality food on tables has always been difficult and risky. Whether a farmer has a successful season or not is dependent on numerous variables – weather, fluctuating markets, availability of labour and other conditions that are beyond the control of individual farmers.
COVID-19 has only added to these challenges, particularly for hundreds of Ontario farmers who for over fifty years have come to depend on temporary seasonal labour from overseas because of a chronic shortage of domestic agricultural workers.
Adding to the challenges, a small group of vocal opponents of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) have used the pandemic to magnify mistruths they have been spreading about the program for years.
Anti-farming activists and trade union leaders with the United Food and Commercial Workers continue to falsely assert that seasonal workers from overseas have not been extended the same labour rights as Canadians during the pandemic.
The truth is international labourers hired to work at Ontario farms through SAWP are entitled to the same benefits and protections as domestic workers and are protected by Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, the Agricultural Employees Protection Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
SAWP workers qualify for the same benefits as Canadian-born employees, including WSIB, OHIP, certain Employment Insurance benefits, the provincial minimum wage and, like every other worker in Ontario during the pandemic, job protection if they have to take an unpaid leave because of COVID-19.
The argument can be made that workers hired on a temporary basis through SAWP receive additional rights and benefits not available to the domestic workforce. For example, SAWP guarantees workers a minimum of an average of 40 hours per week for a set period of labour. It also guarantees workers free housing provided by the employer and that this housing meets rigorous public health standards.
SAWP workers are provided 24-hour access to consular and/or liaison services while in Ontario should they need assistance navigating any issues or complications they may face while working here.
Some critics of the program claim that workers are unable to change employers. However, it is precisely this type of consular support, as well as other policies put in place by the Canadian government, that allow workers to move to another employer subject to all the regular processes to ensure they are not taking a job a Canadian was already willing to do.
In addition, legislation in Ontario prohibits an employer from charging workers for employment costs or acting in reprisal in response to an employee complaint.
Farmers who hire workers through SAWP agree to rigorous scrutiny and audits from numerous government agencies to ensure they are adhering to the rules and providing proper living and working conditions for their workers. It’s not uncommon for a single operation to undergo several audits per season, looking at everything from housing and physical distancing measures, to how much time each day workers are spending on the job.
It’s unfortunate that any of Ontario’s seasonal farm workers became ill with COVID-19 last season, let alone that there were several large-scale outbreaks. It shows how far community spread of this virus can reach and how aggressive it can be in any environment where physical distancing is a challenge.
But overall, the vast majority of farmers responded overwhelmingly well to the health crisis. They went to great lengths very quickly in difficult and rapidly changing circumstances to limit the impact of COVID-19 on their workers and their communities.
Roughly 2,000 seasonal workers from Mexico and the Caribbean have already begun working at Ontario greenhouses through SAWP this year. More will be coming over the next few months. In total, roughly 20,000 workers are expected to be placed at about 1,450 Ontario farms this growing season.
It is not just the workers and the farmers whose livelihoods depend on their arrival this year. With two local jobs created along the food value chain for every SAWP worker, tens of thousands of local jobs rely on their ability to return and work in Canada again this year.
We care deeply about the health and well-being of each individual who works for us, whether they were born here or elsewhere. We care about them as workers and, more importantly, as people.
We will continue to do all we can during the upcoming growing season to keep the men and women who work on our farms safe at the same time as we provide consumers some of the highest quality food on the planet.
About the author: Ken Forth is president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, the non-profit organization that administers the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, and owner/operator of a broccoli farm in Lynden, Ont.
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