Some Ontario farmers express worry over COVID-19 travel restrictions and migrant worker mobility
TORONTO -- With the growing season starting in a month, fruit farmer John Thwaites doesn't know how much of his workforce will be available.
"At this point, I'm not 100 per cent sure that all the men are going to make it," he says.
Thwaites farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of over 2,000 in Canada using seasonal foreign workers. He employs 60 men in a season, and some have been working there for 20 years.
He says they lost 40 percent of their asparagus crop last year because of difficulty getting workers to Canada. He hopes that won't happen again this year.
"Rules change from week to week, as we know. And we're always concerned that governments may change their minds on letting the men in," he says.
Canada relies on foreign workers for its food supply. In a normal year, some 24,000 seasonal agriculture workers will arrive. Most come from Mexico and the Carribean -- and the federal government suspended commercial flights from those locations on Jan. 31.
Ken Forth, President of the Foreign Agriculture Resource Management Service, said they have the resources to get workers on Canadian soil. "We can book total airplanes, like we can book charter flights. And that's what we're doing now," he says.
Safety measures recently put in place, like presenting a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a flight, then another test on the ground, followed by a 14-day quarantine have created a barrier, according to those working in the agricultural sector.
Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance, says that the ever-changing landscape of COVID-19 restrictions in Canada, has created confusion on the other end. He says, "All of these changes collectively have meant that many people are not able to come. Or not able to come immediately."
He also says many workers come from areas without internet or even phones, and changing restrictions are making it difficult to get organized. Adding, "Now you have to get testing on arrival and get testing before you leave. And workers simply don't have the resources to pay for this."
He says workers will often go into debt just to pay for their test before arriving. The federal ministry of employment and social development says they are working on integrating measures to include specific groups, but time is running out.