About 8,000 seasonal and other temporary workers are working in Ontario right now, primarily in greenhouses. About 4,600 more workers were scheduled to arrive by mid-April when travel restrictions were put in place on March 18, 2020. An additional 8,800 workers are expected by mid- June. With these numbers the OFVGA points at a number of challenges the industry is facing.
The Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA) says they appreciate the work of the Government of Canada to ensure the arrival of this much needed labour force. "And farmers are willing to follow strict pre-screening, monitoring and quarantine protocols. Protecting the health of Canadians and farm workers is a key priority."
Yet despite government assurances of a solution, there continue to be challenges related to logistics for flying the workers to Canada, restrictions on workers’ ability to work during their 14-day isolation period upon arrival at their farm of employment and housing for the employees with restrictions that they should maintain a two-metre distance at all times (most of these employees live in farm-owned shared lodgings).
In addition the OFVGA says there are a disturbing number of reports about essential services refusing entry to seasonal agricultural workers who have already been in the province for some time. There is no need to treat these workers any different than Ontarians practicing self- isolation during the COVID-19 crisis. Workers are being asked to follow social distancing requirements, monitor for symptoms, and ensure proper personal hygiene.
"Spring work includes pruning fruit trees and planting crops. If these skilled essential workers are not in Ontario at the beginning of the season to help with spring work, there will not be a crop to harvest later in the season", they explain. "Where possible, farmers always prefer to hire Canadian employees first, even in a normal season, there is a significant gap in terms of availability of local help. The work requires skilled labour. Many employees have been returning to the same Ontario farm for years and are very familiar with the work."
Areas where fruit and vegetables are imported from, like California and Florida, are also dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and the same issues with essential, skilled labour meaning that even imports could also be in short supply if there is a failure of the local crop.
Canadian growers are doing everything they can to keep their employees safe from the COVID virus - and to keep their workforce in tact. Jeremy Capussi, president of the JC Fresh Farms & Greenhouses operation in Kingsville said they are "ahead of the curve" when it comes to preventing infections from viruses.
A group of migrant workers who live together have been quarantined at the greenhouse for the last two weeks to ensure they don't come in contact with anyone on the outside. "They do not leave or go into the community. The only time they would have to leave the site is mostly for groceries which we have a designated person to pick up their groceries on a bi-weekly basis", CBC quoted the grower, who explains about the rigorous process of disinfecting the workers go through as well.
In addition, the measures to limit the spread on the virus on construction sites have been updated, including those on greenhouse building sites. Ministry inspectors are inspecting job sites today and every day. Employers and constructors should know: failure to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and its regulations could result in a stop work order. The new rules can be found here.
Local business task force
There's a big focus on the local business in Canada. Friday Trudeau, announced additional new measures to support small businesses dealing with the economic impacts of the pandemic. "These measures will help Canadian businesses protect the jobs that Canadians depend on, and pay their workers and bills during these difficult times", he says. A small business in Canada is defined as a Canadian-based corporation with fewer than 100 employees and under $500,000 in annual income.
For farmers and food producers, Trudeau earlier announced $5-billion increase in lending capacity.
Federal governments have also decided to exempt temporary foreign workers, including migrant farm workers, from some COVID-19 travel restrictions. About 60,000 come to Canada every year.
But with the pandemic closing visa offices in Mexico – where the vast majority of the seasonal workforce comes from – there are doubts whether the B.C. farming sector will get enough labour in time to harvest its usual bountiful crop come the summer. “We will get a workforce, we just don’t know how many at the moment,” said Driediger who, as well as heading up the council’s labour committee, runs her own 160-acre berry farm in Langley, to local newspaper Richmond news.