Temporary foreign workers responsible for much of our food production are vulnerable. Changing immigration could improve our safety and theirs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the essential nature of agricultural work in Canada and our reliance on migrant workers to get the job done. Despite restrictions on travel to Canada, work permits continue to be issued for agricultural workers because of the indispensable role they play in ensuring Canadian food security.

The pandemic has also highlighted the vulnerabilities and insecure status of these temporary workers. Inspections of their housing and working conditions have been inadequate in the face of COVID-19, exposing workers to the tragic spread of this deadly virus.

In 2019, temporary foreign workers accounted for 20 percent of employment in the agricultural sector. This amounts to approximately 55,000 jobs in farming, food and fish processing. The majority come to Canada from Mexico and Caribbean countries for up to eight months under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, a longstanding program created in 1966. Others come for up to two years under the Temporary Foreign Worker Agricultural Stream. People with other types of work permits may also choose to work in the agricultural sector, as do undocumented workers, who are the most vulnerable of all.

Shifting to more permanent residency

We propose a major policy shift in which more agricultural workers will be selected as permanent residents. This removes much of the vulnerability associated with temporary status. Workers would have full rights in Canada, with the exception of voting, and would not feel compelled to tolerate unsafe conditions in order to avoid deportation.

An agricultural workforce comprised mostly of permanent residents also makes sense because much of the work – such as animal production, food product processing and manufacturing, greenhouse, nursery, floriculture and mushroom production – takes place on a year-round basis. And it would help employers to maintain a stable workforce without the need for annual expenditures on recruitment, Labour Market Impact Assessments, transportation and training.

An important additional benefit is that families would come to Canada together, aiding integration into their new communities. This would avoid the social isolation and outsider status experienced by many temporary agricultural workers, mostly men, who have to leave their families behind. By selecting experienced and committed agricultural workers to work in welcoming, supportive, rural communities, immigrant families would be motivated to build their futures there, strengthening the vibrancy and viability of communities facing population decline.

Canada’s current economic immigration programs primarily allow only highly skilled people and their spouses and dependants to arrive as permanent residents, which has not included agricultural workers. Canada’s new Agri-Food Pilot and some provincial nominee programs offer a pathway to permanent residency for individuals with relevant work experience and a non-seasonal job offer from a Canadian employer, but the language and education standards are too high for many migrant agricultural workers to meet.

One promising option that we recommend is to build an agricultural stream into the Municipal Nominee Program. This is a new program under development by the Government of Canada where communities can sponsor permanent economic immigrants. Temporary agricultural workers already in Canada are a logical place to start for potential nominees because they have demonstrable skills and work experience, and many may welcome the opportunity to become permanent residents.

A wider search could be undertaken in countries with a significant agricultural base to identify clusters of additional nominees abroad. These workers would come as permanent residents from the start.

Refugees with agricultural experience are another potential source of municipal nominees. This has the added benefit of providing durable solutions for refugees identified by the United Nations Refugee Agency, over and above the levels selected through Canada’s humanitarian refugee resettlement stream. And it is consistent with Canada’s commitment as a signatory to the Global Compact on Refugees. In the compact, participating states agree to provide labour mobility opportunities for refugees with skills that they need.

In designing a mechanism to identify refugees under an agricultural stream of the Municipal Nominee Program, Canada can learn from the Economic Mobility Pathways Project. That project selects highly skilled refugees as permanent residents through provincial nominee and other economic immigration programs.

Ideally, clusters of refugee families with agricultural backgrounds will be selected for the new Municipal Nominee Program, preferably from the same world area. This would improve the integration and retention of families in rural areas, along with providing economies of scale for the provision of targeted settlement services. The selection process will need to involve three levels of government, employers, civil society organizations abroad and in Canada and the UN Refugee Agency.

A bottom-up, community-wide approach should be employed. Employers and the rural municipality identify needs for agricultural workers and population growth. Stakeholders develop and implement plans to welcome and support clusters of nominees and their families. Additional support will likely be necessary for people who come as refugees.

Fortunately, there is growing experience in offering specialized settlement support, for example through the Atlantic Immigration Pilot and the new Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot. Ideally, supports should also be available for temporary foreign agricultural workers who need to know their rights, including how to apply for permanent residency.

An agricultural stream under the municipal program would be meaningful, but it should not be viewed as the sole pathway to permanent residency. We recommend that other ways be explored by reviewing and modifying the criteria of existing programs and pilot projects under the economic and other immigration classes.

Protecting temporary workers

Even if permanent residency becomes more accessible, Canada will need some temporary foreign workers, especially for truly seasonal work and some may prefer a more temporary situation. Changes are urgently needed to better protect these workers as well.

As an example, the employer-specific permits received under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program and the Temporary Foreign Worker Agricultural Stream make workers vulnerable. Their status in Canada is dependent on working for the employer who brought them here, leaving them open to potential exploitation, abuse and dangerous work environments with no real recourse. Complaints are rare because of their fear of being fired and deported. We recommend a move to sector-specific permits that allow people to work for any employer within the agricultural sector.

Additional problems arise due to the lack of sufficient accountability and coordination. Multiple federal, provincial and municipal government departments and agencies are involved in different aspects of these programs. And each jurisdiction establishes its own standards and enforcement policies, with little in the way of national standards, coordination or overall accountability.

We propose that the federal government lead a consultative process with provinces, municipal bodies, employers and workers. The purpose would be to develop national standards for health and safety, housing and employment, to establish clear roles and responsibilities and to improve coordination among government bodies for temporary agricultural workers.

Another issue relates to the Labour Market Impact Assessments employers must obtain from the federal government before being allowed to hire a temporary worker from abroad. These assessments include assurances by employers that there are no local residents available to do the job but include little to demonstrate safe conditions and fair compensation for foreign workers. We recommend that national standards be incorporated into these assessments.

Finally, as the recent pandemic has dramatically reminded us, rigorous inspections of worker conditions are essential to ensure safety and fair treatment. Unfortunately, inspections are rarely done proactively without advance notice to the employer. They are often conducted by telephone and may not occur at all in the absence of a formal complaint. Gaps can occur due to different parts and levels of government being responsible for different issues. We recommend the creation of a strategic, coordinated inspection process that would involve collaboration among all relevant departments. The focus would be on proactive monitoring and ensuring compliance with national standards and related requirements of all levels of government.

An opportune time for action

The federal speech from the throne of September 2020 recognizes the value of both migrant and Canadian workers’ contribution to Canada’s food security: “The Canadian and migrant workers who produce, harvest, and process our food – from people picking fruit to packing seafood – have done an outstanding job getting good food on people’s plates. They deserve the government’s full support and protection.”

This level of commitment, along with the government’s objectives for immigration, the economy and rural communities, sets the stage for moving to better protect temporary foreign agricultural workers and to offer more permanent residency options for the people who do this fundamentally important work.

Photo: Seasonal farm workers plant produce crops with the help of a tractor, on June 28, 2020 in Victoria. Photo by Shutterstock/rhfletcher