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Laundry facilities, $16.71 minimum wage among 2024 migrant worker considerations

Ken Forth Picture
Ken Forth

There may be no such thing as ‘business as usual’ in the ever-complicated business of facilitating temporary foreign workers’ entrance to and employment within Canada.

“It sounds easy, but it’s not,” said Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Service (F.A.R.M.S) President Ken Forth. “There is a lot of complexity around what we do.”

And while producers can and do bring in workers themselves, Forth is proud of the role the organization plays for many.

“Our people are very good at supporting the farmer as far as getting people here.”

Forth is pleased to anticipate no red-flagged issues for bringing in the just under 19,000 workers vital to food production in Ontario for 2024’s varied growing seasons.

“We’re going to be able to get the labour we require - and that’s what we need.”

One new item Forth mentioned is the fact workers must have access to laundry facilities, either washers and dryers on-site, or financial compensation and access to a laundromat, an initiative which has been in the works for around 15 years.

“It got put in it had to be done.”

Also of note is the fact as of October 1, 2023, the current minimum wage which must be paid to workers for most commodities was set at $16.71 per hour. This falls within the requirement for workers to receive an average of 40 hours per week of employment across the duration of their stay.

At Forthdale Farms, workers typically put in an average of 50 hours a week across the season, more in some weeks, less in others. The amount of hours temporary foreign migrant workers put in can be controversial in some circles says Forth, however are reflective both of a desire to capitalize time away from home, and the requirements of what often are tight windows of opportunity in an outdoor growing season. It is not possible to pick field tomatoes even in Norfolk County’s comparatively balmy climes at Christmas for example, nor plant them in February.

“It’s just what it is.”

There is a six-week minimum stay under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), which, given the expenses associated with bringing workers in, doesn’t typically pencil out.

The average is around 24 weeks says Forth, made up of components including a ten to 12-week ‘tobacco-apples’ combination, six to eight months for outside vegetables and up to the maximum allowed eight months for greenhouse workers.

“It depends on the crops you grow and we grow 125 different crops.”

Diversification in crops and associated requirements have extended the F.A.R.M.S. active ‘season’. There is still a worker influx near the end of February for pruning apples and grapes, in April as asparagus launches the fresh outdoor produce season, and again in July.

However, people are increasingly arriving at the first of January for either greenhouse work or for other jobs, packing items out of storage for example.

“There are people coming all the time.”

That trend aligns with the rise of greenhouse production, which has always provided a destination for foreign workers, but is a much larger factor than when the SAWP program was founded. There are many reasons for farmers to ‘take it indoors’ says Forth, including the growing climactic instability of outdoor conditions.

“It kind of guarantees you are going to be able to harvest something.”

Rising interest in and demand for workers through the Agricultural Stream Program, which allows a work term of up to two years, reflects in part the year-round greenhouse growing season along with a general Canadian labour shortage, Forth believes.

He points to farmers striving to extend what they do on farms dovetailing with a longer employment period, as well as a lack of local workers, either attracted by high wages in other industries, or people aging out of their traditional occupations and not being replaced.

“We are losing especially the longer-term people to work on farms.”

The ag-stream program features a lot of the same rules as SAWP says Forth, with provisions for workers to return home on vacation. It also extends beyond traditional SAWP source countries to include Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru and Paraguay, although in practical terms, few employees come from the latter three nations.

Cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers are among the greenhouse crop leaders, but Forth is pleased to see farmers growing other things, including for example, strawberries.

“Because one of these days there won’t be a surplus in the U.S. to feed us.”

And in conclusion, aside from looking forward to a season not expected to contain the ‘chaos’ of COVID-challenged years, Forth’s thoughts remain on the vital importance agriculture has for Ontario, and the weight he believes that importance should carry in the political sphere.

“They’re more focussed on building battery plants for foreign countries,” he noted. “It’s pretty sad, because the last time I looked, almost all of agriculture in Ontario is owned here - other companies, not so much.”

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