In midsummer 2018, while many Canadians were enjoying cold drinks on a hot day, a group of migrant farm labourers in Southern Ontario made a desperate phone call.
The workers had been recruited from their homes in Central America as temporary foreign workers. They were told they’d earn a decent wage in exchange for regulated work on Canadian farms, with accommodations provided.
But they allege they were made to work 12- and 14-hour days and forced to live in squalid conditions. A group of 20 was assigned to one small home, with up to eight people sharing one bedroom. Their passports were taken away. Earlier in the year, during the cold winter months, they had to beg for heating. When the heat finally came, their pay was docked to cover the cost.
Santiago Escobar, a representative with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has been supporting migrant workers in Canada for many years, said these farm workers were recruited by a temporary employment agency. The agency would move them around to different farms every couple of weeks or months, often placing them in jobs with no training or knowledge of how to do the work, he said.
At one place, they harvested mushrooms. At another, they worked with poultry.
“Some of them were even injured while working and they were told that they could not go to see a doctor,” Escobar said.
When they’d reached their limit, they phoned Escobar’s union.
Authorities were called and a police investigation is ongoing. But their nightmare experience is one that has been lived by many migrant farm workers in Canada.
That’s why the federal government launched a review in 2017 of the “primary agriculture” stream in Canada’s temporary foreign worker (TFW) program. It covers seasonal agriculture workers, low-wage and some high-wage temporary workers.
The results were quietly published last month.
The program allowing temporary foreign workers is meant to help employers fill job vacancies when Canadians are not available. The government is supposed to make sure employers use the program to respond only to real labour shortages, but concerns have been raised repeatedly over the years about migrant workers’ being tied to employers who have abused them by making them work long hours, cutting their paycheques with arbitrary fees and offering poor living conditions.
In 2017, according to government figures, about 35,000 employers got permission to bring in temporary workers for 97,000 positions. Nearly two-thirds of those were in primary agriculture.
Farm workers are particularly vulnerable because they often work in remote locations and the work itself can be hazardous, involving heavy equipment and hard labour.
The federal review involved extensive consultations with employers and workers — over 490 stakeholders provided input. A housing study and labour-market analysis was also completed.
The findings highlighted a key point: Canadians are increasingly unwilling to work on farms, which means agriculture businesses will continue to seek temporary foreign workers to meet their labour needs.
Employers told government they face an onerous and outdated application process and asked for less red tape for employers proven to be at low risk of abuse. Producers also want to broaden the definitions of what kinds of farm work is eligible for temporary foreign labour. Currently, only farm work involving products on a specified list is eligible. The “national commodity list” includes fruits, vegetables, flowers, tobacco and various animals, but not grains, oilseeds or maple products.
“Canadian farmers continue to undertake extensive efforts to recruit and retain Canadians first, but tight margins, seasonality, and remote farm locations all present challenges when trying to hire Canadians,” said Mary Robinson, a Prince Edward Island potato and grain farmer who’s president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
Recruitment and promotion of opportunities in the farm sector are a priority, but job vacancies are creating problems, she said. Currently the primary agriculture sector has 60,000 vacancies across Canada. By 2025, that number expected to balloon to 110,000.
That’s why one of the recommendations of the federal program review has producers concerned. It asks Ottawa to consider placing caps on the numbers of migrant farm workers accepted to Canada to ensue employers aren’t “overusing TFWs.”
“Despite the public perception, agricultural jobs are not ‘low-skilled’ and require unique skill sets that aren’t always readily available or of interest to Canadians in their areas,” Robinson said.
“We’re keen to better connect agricultural opportunities with Canadians but the TFW program is not what’s preventing this from taking place. While there are many opportunities to educate Canada on agricultural jobs, there will continue to be a significant need for TFWs for the foreseeable future and artificially imposed caps don’t fix the fact that Canadian farmers are price-takers competing in global markets.”
The federal review has also recommended: increasing wages to attract more Canadians to take farm jobs; exploring the idea of allowing migrant workers better access to permanent residency and offering them open work permits, to allow them to quickly leave employers in cases of abuse; and establishing a minimum housing standard for workers.
Since March 2015, Service Canada has been conducting farm inspections to ensure that employers are offering proper working and housing conditions to migrant workers. Those inspections have since increased and government has been naming and shaming those caught breaking the rules. Violators can also face financial penalties or be banned from the program. So far, 129 companies have been cited for violations.
But Escobar says despite this, his union has not seen a marked difference on the ground for many migrant farm workers.
He says he is happy to see the federal review acknowledge that temporary foreign workers are facing abuses in Canada and welcomes the recommendations aimed at giving more rights and protections to workers.
“But a key part of this is how to implement it,” he said.
“If you live in rural Ontario or rural British Columbia, you don’t have access to Service Canada. You don’t have access to a toll-free number to call … this is why we are calling on the government to partner with us, because we have access to workers, we are familiar with their issues.”
Employment Minister Patty Hajdu wasn’t available for an interview, but her spokesperson, Veronique Simard, says the federal government is still considering the recommendations, adding that “significant improvements” have already been made to the migrant farm-worker program.
She pointed to several pilot programs — one in Atlantic Canada and a new one for northern and rural areas of Canada — that offer an expedited pathway to permanent residency for foreign workers. There is also a pilot project in British Columbia where government has spent $3.4 million over two years to help organizations that support temporary foreign workers dealing with potential abuse by their employers.
“Our government has taken steps to ensure that Canadians have the first opportunity at available jobs, that the rights of foreign workers are protected, and that the program is responsive to Canadian labour market needs,” Simard said. “Information collected through the review will serve as a key input in the consideration of ways to modernize the primary agriculture stream.”