Dear honourable members of the committee, I want to begin my opening statement by thanking the committee for the opportunity to present on this very important topic of temporary foreign workers in the agricultural sector and the COVID-19 pandemic.
This topic is one which I have investigated as a researcher in immigration and refugee policy, and with which I have also had personal experience. My own father was a refugee from Chile, giving me the opportunity to improve and maintain my own fluency in Spanish, which led to summer jobs during my undergraduate career working in the orchards of B.C. with temporary foreign workers from Mexico.
Previous to my work with the School of Public Policy, I was also a client support worker in the temporary foreign worker program at the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, located in Calgary, Alberta. In that capacity, I made several trips to the Cargill meat packing plant in High River, Alberta, to meet with workers, and to provide them resources in relation to their immigration status and employment.
It is with that context I hope to provide the members of the committee with an overview of the temporary foreign worker program in relation to Canadian agriculture that combines both data on the topic as well as personal experience.
In addressing this committee, it is important to acknowledge the long history of agricultural-related immigration to Canada since Confederation in 1867. For roughly the first 100 years of our almost 153-year history as a country, one of the primary focuses of our immigration system was to secure and expand our agricultural productivity.
The Immigration Act of 1869 established the basic framework of Canadian immigration policy in relation to labour at the beginning of Confederation, with several provisions that may resonate with committee members today. First, it was designed to attract immigrants that would contribute to Canadian economic productivity, especially in agriculture. Second, it sought to ensure the “safety and protection of immigrants en route and upon arrival in Canada”. It sought to regulate abuses commonly perpetrated against new arrivals. Finally, it provided for government agents to assist immigrants in arranging lodging and making connections in their chosen destinations.
Following the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, Canada began to rapidly expand its immigration program and recruit millions of farmers and farm labourers from overseas, leading to a massive 1,000% increase in the population of the Prairies, and the founding of Alberta and Saskatchewan as provinces. This period came to be known as the wheat boom, a time in which Canada was the world’s fastest-growing economy. Many Canadians with Ukrainian, Polish, or other Eastern European ancestry can trace their roots to that period in which their grandparents and great-grandparents arrived to farm in Canada.
I will not go into detail with every act or decision in relation to Canadian agriculture and immigration, but for the purposes of this statement, I wish to reiterate that from the foundation of Canada until the signing of the first seasonal worker agreement in 1966, Canada made a concerted effort to expand, secure and protect its agricultural system through the recruitment and settlement of farmers and labourers on farms.
Shifting to today, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions with regard to the safety of workers, the security of our food supply chain and the appropriateness of the temporary foreign worker program when Canadians themselves are experiencing record high levels of unemployment.
In a forthcoming paper by the School of Public Policy, we find that the number of arriving workers in agriculture, food processing and transportation is 14% below the number that arrived last year, equal to a shortfall of approximately 3,800 workers during the onset of the primary agricultural season, including planting, calving and the Atlantic lobster season.
This shortfall, combined with the 14-day quarantine period, represents a significant loss in time, as well as workers, especially in consideration of purchases of seed, livestock and other equipment built around expectations for expanded production, and the necessary increase in workers to support it. It also has a human impact, which I will discuss further on. This loss may be most acutely felt in the primary work on farms, with a 14% reduction in relation to 2019, in meat and poultry plants, with a drop of 20%, and in seafood packing plants, with a loss of 60% of their foreign workers.
Calls to employ more Canadians in relation to the drop in arriving foreign workers may be well understood in current circumstances. I would caution, however, that this presents several difficulties.
First, producers and employers will need time and resources to train new employees during the onset of the full agricultural season. Second, Canadians may not actually respond to increased hiring incentives or initiatives by local farmers and producers in sufficient numbers to fill the labour gap. Data from Statistics Canada show that, adjusting for inflation, farmers actually have been willing to spend more on wages for employees. Work by the Conference Board of Canada, however, suggests that we may need to raise wages by upwards of 66% in order to completely offset an ongoing trend in declining domestic participation in agriculture.
Our own exploratory research into the matter, which I should emphasize is preliminary and subject to a more robust analysis, suggests that Canadians may not be as responsive to wage increases in the agricultural sector as foreign workers are. Therefore, increased hiring may offset the decline in domestic labourers, but may not actually fill the gap.
In the conclusion of my remarks, I wish to put a face to these numbers. Discussions of labour supply and productivity need to be contextualized in the humans they represent. Yesterday, it was reported on CBC News that a third worker has died from the coronavirus, located on a farm near Simcoe, Ontario. The worker joins Bonifacio Eugenio Romero and Rogelio Muñoz Santos, both Mexican workers who died from the virus while working on Canadian farms.
In considering reforms to the temporary foreign worker program, we must keep in mind that improving the conditions for workers on farms and in processing plants is not a zero-sum game where Canadians must lose if workers are to benefit. In fact, both sides can win in this case. To that end, the committee may wish to explore some of the following ideas in relation to foreign workers and agriculture.
First, reconsider the access that TFWs have to employment insurance, especially in periods of pandemic and job loss, which may encourage them to take time off rather than risk the spread of disease.
Second, consider adapting the Atlantic immigration pilot to an agricultural immigration pilot, and provide workers with the ability to gain permanent residency through the accumulation of hours or with the support of an employer. Upwards of 45% of TFWs return to farms after three years, 39% over five years, and after 10 years, still a quarter remain. This shows that, despite being called temporary foreign workers, many of them come back repeatedly year after year.
Third, consider allowing farmers to immediately deduct the capital costs for constructing new housing for TFWs, including sufficient space for workers, and make ongoing inspections part of the work of both IRCC and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. In fact, we may provide greater security to our food supply chain by addressing working conditions. We may also consider a retrospective, rather than innovative, look when we consider the permanency of foreign workers in agriculture. This means looking back on our history as a country that was built on a robust agricultural immigration program, and it is perhaps time to revisit that history with renewed understanding of the risks to our food supply chain and to workers themselves.