Evidence of meeting #11 for Agriculture and Agri-Food in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was question.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Marian Campbell Jarvis  Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic and Program Policy, Department of Citizenship and Immigration
Matt de Vlieger  Director General, Immigration, Department of Citizenship and Immigration
Louis Dumas  Acting Associate Assistant Deputy Minister, Operations, Department of Citizenship and Immigration
Jonathan Wallace  Director General, Temporary Foreign Workers Program, Department of Employment and Social Development
Clerk of the Committee  Mr. Marc-Olivier Girard

2:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

I call the meeting to order.

Welcome to meeting number 11 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.

I'll outline a few rules to follow.

Interpretation in this video conference will work very much like a regular committee meeting. You have the choice at the bottom of your screen of either “Floor”, “English” or “French”. When you intervene, please make sure that your language channel is set to the language you wish to speak, not “Floor”. This is very important. It will reduce the number of times we need to stop because the interpretation is inaudible for our participants. It will maximize the time we spend exchanging with each other.

Witnesses, could you let us know with a nod or a wave of your hand that you understand how this all works?

Great. It will work fine.

Also, before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you're ready to speak, click on the microphone icon to activate your mike.

Finally, make sure that your microphone is muted when you are not talking.

We are now ready to begin. I want to welcome our witnesses, especially the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Marco Mendicino.

Welcome, Minister. We are very glad that you are taking the time to appear before our committee.

Mr. Minister, without further ado, we'll give you seven minutes to give us an opening statement on whatever the topic is. Today we're interested in temporary foreign workers, but also human resources on farms in general.

Go ahead, Mr. Minister. The floor is yours for seven minutes. Thank you.

2:05 p.m.

Eglinton—Lawrence Ontario

Liberal

Marco Mendicino LiberalMinister of Immigration

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and to the members of the committee, good afternoon.

Thank you for the opportunity to offer these remarks and to answer your questions about the significant contributions of temporary foreign workers on our farms, at our processing plants, and at all points in Canada's food supply chain. This often-overlooked group of migrant workers has long served to ensure that Canadians may continue to enjoy food that is safe, healthy and affordable. That remains especially true today as we continue to confront COVID-19. Indeed, the work we are doing at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has been a vital lifeline to our food security, health care system and economy as we continue to effectively manage this global pandemic and flatten the curve.

Before I go any further, I first want to express our ongoing gratitude to health care workers, as well as Canadian farmers, food business leaders and workers, both domestic and from abroad, for everything you are doing to keep us healthy and to preserve access to high-quality food at our grocery stores and kitchen tables. We say thank you.

Following the outbreak, my department has played a critically important role in the Government of Canada's response to COVID-19. Today I want to highlight the special measures we have put in place to support temporary foreign workers, farmers and industry leaders to sustain Canada's food security.

Our work in this area is done in close collaboration with federal branches, which are led by my ministerial colleagues at Agriculture and Agri-Food, at Employment and Social Development Canada and at Fisheries and Oceans.

To help contain the spread of COVID-19, the federal government introduced travel restrictions at the border, with targeted exemptions for essential travel, which includes temporary foreign workers. IRCC is principally responsible for the issuance of work permits to temporary foreign workers and the supporting regulatory framework, which is under my purview through the immigration and refugee protection regulations.

Since the beginning of the crisis, the government has prioritized work permit processing for critical occupations, including those in the agriculture and agrifood sectors.

To safeguard the continuity of trade, commerce, health and food security for all Canadians, we have implemented an exemption to our travel restrictions to allow these workers to enter Canada, so that our farms and food processing facilities can continue to provide for Canadians.

Since April, nearly 22,000 temporary foreign workers have arrived in Canada on charter flights to work in our agriculture and food industry.

While we are facilitating the entry of temporary workers into Canada, further supports are required once they arrive, and the government has made progress there, as well.

On April 13, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada announced $50 million to help all food production and processing employers put in place the measures necessary to follow the mandatory 14-day quarantine, required of all workers arriving from abroad.

We're also making better use of the workers who are already here. We've introduced additional strategies to address status restoration and to reduce timelines for documentation.

On May 12, my department announced a new public policy that cuts the time that it takes for temporary foreign workers to start a new job from 10 weeks or more down to 10 days or less. This will allow temporary workers who are already in Canada with an employer-specific work permit to quickly change jobs when they find a new one. It's a win-win situation.

Our government is working very closely with employers of temporary foreign workers to ensure that the 14-day quarantine period is respected once workers arrive in Canada and that appropriate accommodations and provisions are made available to allow workers to do their important work in planting and seeding.

To help enforce these new requirements across the board, a package of regulations came into force on April 20. Employers have a responsibility for the health of their workers as well as to public health generally. Employer associations continue to work collaboratively with the government to figure out how they can help fulfill both of these objectives. In addition to the measures we're taking in response to the immediate effects of COVID-19, we continue to plan for the future.

Immigration is an enduring value that I believe in and that I trust Canadians believe in too, and we will see that for a long time after COVID-19 is behind us. Just last week, IRCC opened applications under the agri-food pilot program. Over the last several years, industries such as meat processing, mushroom and greenhouse production, and livestock raising have experienced ongoing challenges in finding and keeping employees. The agri-food pilot aims to attract and retain workers in these industries by providing them with an opportunity to become permanent residents. As we work to reinvigorate our economy after the pandemic, these workers will play an important part in getting Canada back to business.

This is a three-year pilot that will test an approach to help employers in these areas fill ongoing labour needs for full-time, year-round work. It will provide a pathway to permanent residency for many temporary foreign workers already in Canada. A total of 2,750 applications will be accepted annually throughout the pilot, which applies primarily to people who are already here.

The success of our Canadian farmers and food processors depends on their ability to recruit and retain the workforce that they need. This pilot will help to ensure that farmers and processors have the much-needed skills, experience and labour so we can continue to strengthen Canada's food security, grow our economy and improve our living standards for all of Canada.

Mr. Chair, temporary foreign workers are of vital importance to our food security and our economy. They are critical to the success of our farms and our hospitals, and this is why we have made the exceptions to the travel restrictions and why we continue to work with our partners provincially and in the sector with farmers, doctors and others to ensure everyone has the support they need.

Thank you, Mr. Chair and committee members. I'm now happy to take your questions.

2:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you very much, Minister, for your opening statement.

Before I go any further, I just wanted to also mention the personnel from the immigration department. We have Marian Campbell Jarvis, assistant deputy minister, strategic and program policy; Louis Dumas, acting associate assistant deputy minister, operations; and Matt de Vlieger, director general, immigration.

From the Department of Employment and Social Development, we also have Jonathan Wallace, director general, temporary foreign worker program.

Welcome to all of you. You will remain for the second hour, I understand, to answer further questions.

With that, we shall commence our question round. We'll start with Ms. Lianne Rood, for up to six minutes. Go ahead.

2:10 p.m.

Conservative

Lianne Rood Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and thank you, Minister, for appearing before us today.

Minister, I've heard from many farmers in my riding. They're having difficulties with some of the audits that are being done. A farmer's greatest fear right now is not the weather; a fruit and vegetable farmer's greatest fear right now is an audit by the integrity branch.

I have heard some examples from different farmers, one being a phone call at 7:45 in the morning telling her she had to talk to this auditor right then, and if she didn't, then she could fail her audit. An hour and a half was spent on the phone, and numerous photos and videos.... Of course, we want to make sure that the quarantine is safe and is following the health guidelines.

I have another example of a farmer, a pregnant woman, who was asked to go into a quarantine bunkhouse with quarantined people in there to carry out the audit and provide photos and videos to the auditor that the social distancing was happening.

I'm just wondering, Minister, what the guidelines are for these auditors when they're carrying out these audits. Showing very little kindness and compassion in some of these instances is not going very far.

Can you give us an idea of how many audits are happening and what the direction is on them?

2:10 p.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

First I want to thank you for the question.

I want to echo the concerns we have not only for the farmers but for the officials who are supporting farmers in ensuring that we have safe workplaces. I want to underscore that everyone has the right to work in a safe and healthy workplace. That is one of the reasons we have put into place standards under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to ensure that when workers and inspectors show up, they can feel confident that they're working in a healthy and secure place.

In a previous committee appearance last week, I expressed my profound concern when we heard of some of the outbreaks that have occurred. We need to be sure we're looking into the causes of those, but without in any way compromising the safety and security of those who are conducting those audits and inspections.

We will continue to work very closely with the provinces, which I'm sure my honourable colleague knows have the primary line of jurisdiction to ensure that occupational health and safety is being upheld on our farms and in our food and processing plants.

2:15 p.m.

Conservative

Lianne Rood Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Thank you.

I'm going to switch gears here a bit, Minister. We've heard some numbers coming out from the Minister of Agriculture, I believe, last week with regard to the number of workers who have arrived in Canada. Some were saying that 90% of temporary foreign workers were here. However, that's not what I am hearing from industry. For instance, I'm hearing that on the seasonal agricultural worker program, we've only received about 78% of the workers who should have been here at this point. I understand in B.C. it might be 50%. I know it's somewhere around the same in Quebec.

I'm wondering what number we should believe. Can you give the committee a definitive number for April, and perhaps what the outlook is for May, June, and beyond for workers arriving?

2:15 p.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

I'm going to try to break that down. I want to give you the most accurate data I can, and I'm certainly happy to continue this conversation after the committee appearance.

In round terms, currently approximately 30,000 agricultural workers have arrived in Canada for this year, which breaks down along the seasonal agricultural worker program, as well as the broader family of workers who are providing support to our farms.

Under the seasonal agricultural worker program, we have approved permits for 18,000 temporary foreign workers, 15,000 of whom have already arrived and are starting the important work of planting and seeding. We know there are more coming.

This is work that not only I but my colleagues at Agriculture Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, and Global Affairs Canada are continuing, to ensure we are facilitating the safe and orderly arrival of temporary foreign workers who are abroad. One of the ways my department is accelerating that process is by setting up a dedicated team to reduce the period of time and ensure that those approvals are coming within 10 days or less, and to ensure that the mandatory isolation periods are in place to keep farms and our food security safe.

2:15 p.m.

Conservative

Lianne Rood Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

I've had the opportunity to talk with some folks from the seasonal agricultural worker program. I believe they've been speaking perhaps with you, and I know with Minister Bibeau as well. They put a proposal before you last week with regard to resolving some of the backlogs in industry moving forward. I believe this policy was trying to streamline with labour market analysis. They were asking that those who requested or were approved in 2020 on their labour market impact assessment applications could renew their work visa for 2020, based on the fact that their permits were granted in 2019.

I understand there are some changes to the program. As of right now, the worker is supposed to pay the $155 visa processing fee, but that used to be done at the employer level, and then they would just deduct it at a later date. I wonder if you've seen that proposal and where you are on this proposal to make the process more streamlined.

2:15 p.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

I'm certainly familiar with both the proposal to look at ways of renewing visas for a two-year term as opposed to just one, as well as looking at ways to create additional flexibility around how fees are paid. I had a great call with a number of farmers and industry leaders earlier this week where we developed a bit on both of those subjects. Those discussions are ongoing.

In the short term, based on the numbers I just read into the record regarding our progress in April, as well as the progress we're making in May, we are seeing a significant number of temporary foreign workers arrive here in a timely, safe and orderly fashion, and that is because we stood up a dedicated team. We are fast-tracking approval.

Most importantly, and I think this gets to the gist of your question, we have introduced some additional work flexibility. If you're here and you're tied to a specific job or employer and you've lost that job because of COVID-19, you're now able to stay in Canada on implied status and take that new job prior to the official approval, just as a means of filling those labour gaps, which we know exist every year.

I thank you for that question.

2:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you, Minister.

We'll go to Mr. Drouin for the next six minutes.

Go ahead, Mr. Drouin.

2:20 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Drouin Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you to the minister for being in front of us today. I know he's no stranger to agriculture. If we go back about four or five years, I briefed him quickly on a milk protein issue, and he delivered flawlessly to our caucus at the time, so I want to thank him for that.

Here we are, five years later, discussing agriculture and the importance of temporary foreign workers.

Minister Mendicino, all MPs reached out to you at the beginning of this. I can't believe it has already been two months.

How important was it to get a proper solution regarding temporary foreign workers for Canada so that we can grow our food?

2:20 p.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

I'll begin by thanking my honourable colleague both for the compliments as well as for his work and advocacy when it comes to supporting our farmers. I know it's something he's very passionate about, as well as his dedication in the community.

He's quite right that at the outset, when we were examining ways we could limit the spread of COVID-19, we took a look at our borders and it quickly became clear that we needed to establish a lifeline for our temporary foreign workers, particularly those who come and work on our farms, are here year in and year out and have developed a close relationship with the farmers who employ them and with their co-workers and, as I've said before, have established a deep-rooted connection to Canada. We owe them a debt of gratitude, because without them, those labour shortages would continue to exist.

That was the principal rationale for creating a targeted exemptions regime that ensures they are able to arrive in Canada, but like everyone else, they have to abide by the 14-day isolation period. We have provided some additional support to farmers so that they have the resources they need to accommodate for physical distancing and isolation where necessary.

I could not agree more with the question.

2:20 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Drouin Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Minister, the additional dollars we have provided for the cost of quarantine measures are so important to ensure we have a safe workplace and to make sure that if there is an issue, we can catch it earlier.

Ms. Rood talked about audits, and I know it's never fun. When I served my first year as an MP, I was audited by the CRA, so we are never protected, and it can be a stressful time.

How did that policy come forward for those additional dollars, which I believe is up to $1,500 per worker?

2:20 p.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

First, I'm glad to see you survived the audit and you're still here among us.

Yes, you're quite right that the $1,500 per temporary foreign worker benefit, which is distributed through a $50-million envelope that went directly to farmers for this purpose, helps to ensure that workplaces in farms and processing plants are safe. This was in direct response to the feedback we heard both provincially and among farmers and industry leaders.

We looked at, and are continuing to look at, ways to provide that support. That's something that was acknowledged on my call earlier this week with stakeholders.

2:20 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Drouin Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Thank you for that response.

In your opening remarks, you briefly touched on the agri-food pilot. I know this is something that was not necessarily COVID-19-related, but your department was still able to launch it during this pandemic. Now more than ever, it's so important to ensure that our meat-packing plants or our slaughterhouses are filled with folks who can do that work.

Can you explain to this committee how your department was still able to stay on a timeline to get that launched?

2:20 p.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

It allows me to express my gratitude to our public servants at IRCC, who have really risen to the challenge by creating alternative processes, by moving more into the digital realm, as all of us are, right across government and in life. As a result, we were able to launch the agri-food pilot, which is a commitment we made because we wanted to recognize not only the contributions that temporary workers are providing on our farms, but also, as I said earlier, the connection they develop to Canada and to their communities over a period of time.

What I've heard from farmers, and I'm sure my honourable colleague and members of the community are familiar with this too, is that there is a relationship that develops over a number of years. Because of that relationship, we want to acknowledge the work, effort and energy expended to help Canadians continue to get access to safe and affordable food by providing these workers with a pathway to permanent residence. It's very clear; it's set out and straightforward. There will be an allocation of 2,750 principal applicants each year for the next three years. We're going to make sure this is something that will contribute to long-term success by providing a way for them to become permanent residents, as well as to continue to contribute to food security for all Canadians.

2:25 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Drouin Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Thank you, Minister.

I think I'm almost out of time. I see the chair staring at me.

2:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you, Francis. We had a few seconds, but I went a little bit extra on Ms. Rood.

Colleagues, I don't know if you're timing your time, but when we get close to 30 seconds, I may tell you that you have to cut your questions because it will take time from somebody else down the line. It's just to remind you.

I now give the floor to Mr. Perron.

Mr. Perron, you have the floor for six minutes.

2:25 p.m.

Bloc

Yves Perron Bloc Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair. I assure you that I am paying attention to my speaking time and should not go over.

I want to begin by acknowledging the witnesses, as well as the minister and Ms. Martinez Ferrada, and thanking them for joining us. I have actually been in frequent contact with Ms. Martinez Ferrada lately. I am very grateful to her for her cooperation, but that does not mean I would not have any criticisms or, I should say, constructive questions.

Minister, even before the government announced $1,500 in financial support per foreign worker during the quarantine, the Bloc Québécois was already thinking—unsurprisingly—that this should be publicly funded. Since it was not, however, you offered agricultural producers $1,500 in assistance per foreign worker, which was interpreted by everyone at the time as an automatic lump sum payment.

I want to point out to the committee that people from the agricultural community are the only ones who must pay their workers during the quarantine period. That cost is already being incurred, without taking into account the higher airfare, the fact that those workers arrived later than planned and various other factors.

Agricultural producers are currently telling me that they have forms to fill out and receipts to provide to prove their expenses, and that the $1,500 has now become a maximum of $1,500.

How can you explain that change? What is more, can you guarantee to producers that they will in fact receive $1,500 per foreign worker?

2:25 p.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

Thank you for your question and for your collaboration with my parliamentary secretary, Ms. Martinez Ferrada, who is with us this morning.

To answer your question, we have created a process that is more efficient and gives farmers more assistance. As you said, the money is for temporary workers, as it is true that the employer must cover the costs related to those workers.

At the same time, we were looking for new solutions and new ways to support our temporary foreign workers and our farmers. We have a team focusing on that program, which is so essential. We will continue to collaborate with you and with my Quebec counterpart, Mr. Jolin-Barrette, with whom I work every week. That collaboration will continue.

2:25 p.m.

Bloc

Yves Perron Bloc Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Minister, I would like to get right back to the $1,500 compensation.

Could you guarantee to us that every agricultural producer or every employer in the agrifood sector who hires a foreign worker and who must take on the burden, the cost and the tremendous responsibility of organizing their quarantine—while they have already lost a great deal—will be able to receive the full $1,500 amount without being stymied by paperwork they have no time to fill out? People should now be out in the fields.

May 22nd, 2020 / 2:30 p.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

That is exactly the objective of this program. It's about providing that assistance to the farmer, who will pass the benefits on to the worker. If ever you found out about any problematic cases, you could contact my office, and we would carry out an investigation, if necessary.

2:30 p.m.

Bloc

Yves Perron Bloc Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

So my understanding is that there won't be too much paperwork to fill out, but that is not what I am hearing from people on the ground. That really reassures me. That is important, as this assistance is already very minimal.

Your pilot project on access to permanent residence is a good idea, and we are very happy about it. However, you have requirements in terms of education. If the foreign worker has been a farm hand in Canada for a number of years already, they will still be required to have the equivalent of a high school diploma. Can you explain to me the logic behind that requirement?

2:30 p.m.

Liberal

Marco Mendicino Liberal Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

The objective of that requirement is to ensure a minimum level of academic training, but the most important part is farm-related experience. That is the goal of this project—

2:30 p.m.

Bloc

Yves Perron Bloc Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

I am sorry to interrupt you, Minister, but we don't have a lot of time.

You understand that behind my question is a concern over imposing a bunch of forms and conditions.

I will tell you about a case I learned of this morning, related to a labour market impact assessment, or LMIA. It involves people whose work permit expired, who theoretically must leave the country, but they cannot do so. In addition, the employer wants to keep them. So applications for permit renewals were submitted very quickly, but the LMIA must be carried out at the same time. However, officials are refusing to renew the work permits under the pretext that the LMIA has not been completed.

I would like to know two things, but I have about five seconds left. Is there a way to loosen that process? Could the requirement for an LMIA be suspended during the current crisis—for instance, until October?