Jobs, migrant workers and horticulture's labour shortage
Like in many industries across the country, there is a severe shortage of workers on Canadian farms. Technology and equipment are helping to make some work easier, but people are still the most important part of producing food on the farm, especially produce. That's because many fruits and vegetables bruise or damage easily, so they need to be planted, picked and cared for by hand.
For reliable, experienced farm employees, Canadian farmers turn to seasonal and temporary foreign farm workers for help.
Legal, government-regulated worker programs
International agriculture workers – often called migrant workers – can legally work in Canada through two government-regulated programs: the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) or the agricultural stream of Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program. In 2022, over 70,000 workers came to Canada through these programs to work on Canadian farms.
SAWP, which began in Canada in 1966 when 264 Jamaican workers arrived in Ontario to help with apple harvest, is today open only 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.
Workers who come to Canada under the TFWP ag stream program will stay year-round for up to two years, before either going home or applying to renew their work permits to stay in Canada longer. They come from many different countries, like Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Guatemala.
Regardless of which program brings them here, however, these workers have the same rights and privileges as Canadian workers do, and their employers have the same obligations and responsibilities to those workers as they do for their Canadian employees. This includes minimum wage; workplace insurance coverage and safety protection; and access to healthcare, Employment Insurance and Canada Pension Plan.
Workers also have access to a multilingual, 24/7 federal government support centre they can use to raise concerns and seek help relating to their housing or any other aspect of their current employment.
Dramatic allegations likening SAWP's working conditions to systemic slavery triggered a thorough independent investigation of the program by a Jamaican government taskforce in 2022. The final report found that a large proportion of Jamaican farm workers have a positive view of SAWP, and the vast majority of Ontario farm employers using the program are operating within its parameters. Furthermore, the report categorically stated that no evidence was found to support the slavery allegations.
Under both government-regulated international farm worker programs, employers must provide housing for their workers. SAWP workers live rent-free – it’s part of the compensation they receive from their employers – and although TFW ag stream workers do pay rent, it’s capped at a maximum of $30 a week. All housing for workers on those programs is inspected by government officials, local public health units and, for SAWP workers, liaison officers from their home countries. Inspections are completed annually before workers are allowed to arrive at a farm but can and do also take place during their employment term.
It is common for many workers to return to the same farm year after year, where their experience and skills make them valued members of the farming business. With the money they earn in Canada, workers support their families and communities back home. There are many examples of workers who’ve been able to establish farms and businesses in their home countries, create local jobs and pay for their children’s education because of their jobs in Canada.
Outside of the strongly regulated SAWP and TFW program, there is also a third segment of migrant workers 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, which has the full support of the farming sector.
More than a Migrant Worker is an initiative supported by a group of Ontario farm organizations who are working together to thank and raise awareness about the important role and contributions of international agricultural workers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the OFVGA also helped with initatives at Pearson International Airport to provide support and resources to arriving international agriculture workers. This included educational resources, meals, welcome kits, as well as cultural liaisons present at the airport to ease the tranisition for arriving workers.
Food safety is a number one priority for fruit and vegetable growers. The vast majority are certified under Canada GAP, a Canadian government recognized food safety program for companies that produce, handle, and broker fresh fruits and vegetables.
The program is based on a rigorous hazard analysis applying the seven principles of the internationally-recognized HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) approach. It is also benchmarked to and officially recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).
Additionally, growers also follow any additional specific requirements of the retailers that they market their produce to.
Fruit and vegetable production in Ontario is regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency under the Safe Food for Canadians Act.
Ontario's fruit and vegetable growers recognize that for a variety of reasons, not everyone has access to fresh fruits and vegetables and works hard to support food security activities in the province.
Food bank donations
OFVGA actively supports efforts to fight hunger in Ontario. A $25,000 donation was made for the third time in 2023 to Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue charity that redistributes nutritious but unsold food through school programs, seniors’ centres, shelters, food banks and regional food hubs.
Many individual farmers also regularly support their local food banks and programs that promote healthy eating.
Northern school program
For many years, the OFVGA Association has worked closely with the provincial ministry of health to manage buying and distributing fresh produce through the Northern Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program (NFVP). Initially launched in 2006 in the Algoma and Porcupine districts, it was expanded in 2014 and again in 2017 due to successful adoption by schools and high student engagement to now service all of northern Ontario.
The program presently serves more than 76,000 students in more than 400 provincial and First Nation schools from North Bay-Parry Sound in the south to Fort Severn along the Hudson Bay coast in the north and all areas west to Kenora. More than three million servings of fresh fruit and vegetables are provided between January through June in those regions each year.