Farm workers and the farm labour shortage

To preserve our domestic food production, Ontario's fruit and vegetable growers need continued access to a predictable and dependable workforce, including Canada's government-regulated worker programs: Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and Temporary Foreign Worker program. 

Why fruit and vegetable farms depend on farm workers

Labour is a big part of the economics of producing food, and in addition to their family members, farmers rely on hiring workers to help them grow their fruit and vegetable crops. Although technology and equipment is helping to automate some work on the farm, in the greenhouse or in orchards and vineyards, many fruit and vegetable crops are delicate and bruise or damage easily, so they still require human hands to help with growing, managing and harvesting. 

Automated equipment is starting to become available for jobs like picking strawberries, predicting tree fruit yield, weeding or scouting for pests and diseases, but it’s still quite expensive and not yet widely available. 

Many fruit and vegetable crops too have a very short season, which means the time they are at perfect ripeness for harvest is very short. If they're not harvested in that time frame, they’ll lose their taste or quality, or at worst, just rot in the field or on the vine. 

Government-regulated programs help address the farm labour shortage

Like in many sectors of the Canadian economy, there is a severe shortage of workers on Canadian farms, particularly on fruit and vegetable farms. And even though growers try to fill their on-farm jobs with Canadian workers, there simply aren’t enough people willing and available to do so. That’s why growers rely on seasonal and temporary foreign farm workers to help grow our food. 

Ontario’s fruit and vegetable farmers employ approximately 20,000 seasonal and temporary foreign workers on their farms and in their greenhouses every year. These are workers who come to Ontario legally under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), or the agricultural stream of the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program.

SAWP began in Canada in 1966 when 264 Jamaican workers arrived in Ontario to help with apple harvest. Today, the government-approved program is open to workers from Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean islands, who come to Canada to work for a defined period of time before going home for the winter.

The TFW program brings people to Canada for periods of up to two years from a wide range of countries, including Guatemala, Thailand, the Philippines and more. 

Benefits and rights of seasonal and international farm workers

Farmers who employ migrant farm workers under Canada’s officially recognized temporary foreign worker programs are subject to frequent federal, provincial, and foreign government compliance inspections. These employers have the same and, in some cases, higher obligations to their temporary international workers as they do for their Canadian employees. 

This includes government-approved wage rates; access to health care under OHIP, Employment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan; and workplace insurance coverage and safety protection – just like any other Canadian employee is entitled to. Workers with permits under SAWP or the TFW program also have access to multilingual, 24/7 federal government support.

Undocumented workers

Unfortunately, there is also a third segment of migrant workers who aren’t as fortunate. These are people who are undocumented and don’t have legal work permits. Their precarious status leaves them vulnerable to mistreatment, regardless of which sector they work in. Governments at the federal and provincial level have made it a priority to prevent the exploitation of these undocumented people and the farming sector is fully supportive of this aim. 

What growers need

  • continued access to a predictable and dependable workforce
  • ongoing government support for Canada's official temporary worker programs, Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and Temporary Foreign Worker program