No doubt the farming community in Ontario and Canada will never forget 12:01 on Wednesday, March 18, as it marked the closure of non-residents, and in particular farm workers under the seasonal agricultural worker program, from entering Canada. This was devastating news to stakeholders involved in agriculture and the agri-food business, and this started the massive stress that still remains within agriculture.
The start of the week of March 16, right through to the third week of May, is noted as the peak time frame for seasonal agricultural workers to arrive in Ontario. In excess of 8,700 workers were already scheduled to arrive, with flights arranged, airlines positioned, source countries busy documenting seasonal workers, farm operators preparing for the arrivals and the workers themselves preparing to leave their families for another season.
Overnight, everything came to a standstill. The phone lines were jammed with the first farm operators questioning where the workers were and whether they would arrive in time for spring vegetable planting, fruit tree pruning, asparagus harvesting and ginseng shading, as well as nursery production and flower production, which are always in high demand. In the following days, borders closed to almost all source countries providing farm workers to Canada. The media quickly became the focal point of everyone’s day.
Fortunately for all stakeholders, the announcement came quickly that an exemption under the special exemption was approved for non-resident temporary farm workers to enter Canada. However, farm operators had to act quickly to fulfill the obligations that were now imposed on both farm operators and the arriving temporary workers.
Farm operators' obligations are as follows: one, monitor all persons for the virus; two, facilitate self-isolation according to public health requirements; three, meet minimum standards where housing is provided, to provide social distancing of two meters and to ensure that individuals in self-isolation are separated from those who are not; four, maintain zero contact with older adults; five, provide personal protective equipment, masks, gloves and thermometers, as well as any necessary material to practise adequate sanitation such that surfaces are cleaned and disinfected regularly and there is access to soap and water to regularly wash hands or the use of sanitizer; and six, support efforts to minimize the spread of the virus during and following the 14-day isolation period.
In terms of the health ministry, Public Health Ontario offices play a huge role in the seasonal agricultural worker program by providing seasonal housing inspections every eight months, thereby adding to the integrity and success of the seasonal agricultural worker program. Farm operators relied on the Public Health offices to make sure they were adhering to the virus guidelines, as well as the guidelines set forth by the federal Minister of Health and the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion.
Partial solutions were implemented, with a focus on making sure everyone maintained the following guidance.
Farm operators needed to plan for a 14-day isolation period for all newly arrived farm workers. This includes closely looking at the housing plans to reorganize, if needed, to meet the guidelines. For social distancing, beds were moved further apart. In some cases, partitions were put up. Hotel rooms were rented.
As I’ve already said, they needed to purchase sanitary cleansers and masks.
There was agreement with the farm operators for food provision beyond the 14-day self-isolation period. A number of farm employers have arranged for food pickup or delivery on an ongoing basis to eliminate the farm workers’ need to go to the local grocery stores. The farm workers are made aware that the agreement is voluntary and they have the option to change the process. It has been found that farm workers are generally in agreement with the pros and cons of leaving the farm on a frequent basis. It should also be noted that the general public in Ontario does not like to see foreign workers going into grocery stores anymore. Actually, it’s pretty pathetic how Canadians are acting in some cases in some food stores, but that’s the reality of what’s happening today.
Added thought was put into farm equipment and how best to keep distancing in play. Farm operators have installed Plexiglas and other dividers for the workers on planting machines and when they are sitting closer. This small measure is huge when you consider that it provides a barrier against a potential cough or sneeze.
Farm operators are to monitor the farm workers on a daily basis and to document a plan to remove and quarantine any worker who shows signs of the virus, which would include notifying the Public Health office.
They are to maintain distancing to the extent possible during work hours and supply masks, glasses and face shields. They are to receive and take action on communication updates periodically sent by our office in relation to the virus updates.
Simply, these measures cost the growers a ton of money, and nobody has been there with us on this basis.
The health and safety of Canadians and seasonal and temporary workers in Canada remains paramount. Farm operators and farm workers acknowledge that they have an obligation to remain under strict guidance for the duration of the term of employment.
While the virus continues to present itself, the food supply chain remains viable through the long-standing relationship between Canada and the source countries.
The bottom line is that we need the government to have our backs in this thing if it wants a stable food supply. The farmers of this country have basically been left on their own. Support for agriculture has fallen drastically short. “AgriStability” is a phrase that urban Canada likes to talk about. AgriStability simply does not work, and has never worked. We just need our backs covered, if we want Canada to have a food supply.
Thank you very much for your time.