The Contribution of Agricultural Migrant Workers

Some industries rely heavily on temporary foreign workers. Canada-wide 27.4 per cent of agricultural workers are foreign migrants. The concentration is even higher in provinces where fruit and vegetable production is centred: 41.6 per cent in Ontario and 30 per cent in Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

The agricultural production in Ontario, Quebec, BC and Nova Scotia where these workers are concentrated is a multi-billion dollar business. For example, 48 per cent of Canada's field vegetable production is in Ontario and 38 per cent is in Quebec, generating $569 million and $478 million respectively in 2019. The majority of this production, $729.3 million, is for export.

Seventy-one per cent of greenhouse vegetable production is concentrated in Ontario: tomatoes (37 per cent); peppers (32 per cent) and cucumbers (27 per cent). Seventeen per cent is in British Columbia and seven per cent in Quebec, altogether generating $1.032 billion, $305 million and $148 million respectively. The lion's share of this, $1.108 billion, is for export. Mushroom production is another huge cash crop for export, generating $320.4 million. The top export destination of each of these crops is the United States, which receives 97 per cent of farm gate production value.

The same is true of Canada's fruit production -- 90 per cent of which comes from BC ($467.3 million), Ontario ($303.7 million) and Quebec ($287.2 million). The United States is the top destination of Canada's fruit exports, taking 64.8 per cent, valued at $546.1 million.

Most agricultural workers come under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program on employer specific work permits. Their residency in Canada is restricted to a maximum period of eight months, between January 1 and December 15. This program draws on workers from Mexico and the Caribbean and they must work in specified crop production: apiary products, fruit and vegetable, mushrooms, flowers, nursery-grown trees, pedigreed canola seed, seed corn, grains, oil seeds, maple syrup, sod, tobacco, bovine, dairy, duck, horse, mink, poultry, sheep, or swine.

Many of these workers return year after year, working for the same employer, and while they may be eligible to apply for permanent resident status, the requirement bar is set high so as to prohibit most of these migrant workers from ever obtaining permanent status, should they want to do so. It is not much different than when Canada's racist immigration practices, while not outright excluding people from the Caribbean or Africa from applying for citizenship, made the process impossible for them to navigate successfully.

The Canadian Council for Refugees published a report on a National Forum on Human Trafficking held November 27, 2019 which discussed the conditions of these workers. Among other things it wrote: "Those who come to Canada through the low-skilled stream of the TFWP [Temporary Foreign Worker Program] are at particular risk. They are not allowed to bring their families, they have little access to services offered by large settlement agencies, are often placed in communal living situations, and often with strangers. These situations create many unintended consequences on mental health; many live with anxiety and depression. Their situation also affects their relationships with their families."

The report continued: "Exploitation often begins with the recruiter. This often takes the form of exorbitant recruitment fees as well as abusive and fraudulent practices. Forum participants reported workers being charged $10,000 by recruiters at the onset of their contracts; there have even been cases of workers being asked to pay $50,000 (for airfares, wage deductions, etc.)." The participants called for stronger measures to be put in place to deter, monitor and provide consequences for abusive recruiters.

(With files from: Canadian Council for Refugees, Statistics Canada: Temporary Foreign Workers in the Canadian Labour Force: Open Versus Employer-specific Work Permits, No. 18, 2019)

This article was published in

June 18, 2021 - No. 58

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