By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
While media reports have revealed poor conditions some seasonal workers experience in Canada, Felena Pereira of Trinidad and Tobago says her employer made Christmas 2020 in lock-down a great experience and she now wants to become a permanent resident.
Pereira is a mother of two who works at Schuyler Farms in Norfolk County. The family operation produces apples, sour cherries, grains, oil seeds and grass fed lamb and is heavily invested in sustainable agriculture, while employing over 200 seasonal workers. Pereira started working at the farm in 2013 for a three-month stay and now works eight months of the year. She is currently in the process of applying for permanent residency because she sees Canada as a country of opportunity for her and her two children, aged 17 and 14.
“Being a foreign, temporary worker, I know that we help the Canadian economy and this is important we come here and work,” said Pereira, speaking in a farmer panel on seasonal workers during the Royal Food and Nutrition Forum hosted by Farm and Food Care in November. Her experience has been great, thanks to an employer that has always followed protocol and treats workers well.
“Last year we travelled to Canada during the height of the pandemic on July 6. Usually we arrive in April,” recounts Pereira. “We had to quarantine but mine was not a bad experience because I was housed with two other co-workers and the farmer did all he had to do. He provided foodstuffs and it was not a bad experience.”
When workers had to stay over Christmas, the whole community got involved to make it special for the workers, says Pereira. “They brought groceries to the farm and people donated Christmas decorations. It turned out to be a very festive experience for our first winter. The farmer went all out and decorated the farm … it was so pretty. He had a huge tree and Christmas presents. Even though we missed Trinidad, it was a good experience.” Some co-workers even tried traditional winter sports and activities such as ice-fishing and cross-country skiing though it was commented that ice-skating looked crazy.
Seasonal workers are a vital part of Canada and Ontario’s farm scene and Amanda Dooney of Suncrest Orchards in Norfolk County said they couldn’t do without their Jamaican “family”.
“We can’t hire local people. We advertise and no Canadians seem willing to work. They seem to turn down their nose at farm work,” says Dooney, who operates two orchards with her husband and hires eight long-term seasonal workers and an additional 10 workers at harvest. “Farm work is very seasonal and we cannot offer full time work year around but our Jamaicans love it. They work the season and then have time at home with their families. They told us the working wage part-time here is equivalent to what a full time police officer makes back home.”
The very nature of seasonal work is a huge detriment to hiring locals, says Stefan Larass, a Senior Policy Advisor with the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. He explained that farmers are required to advertise locally and nationally, using at least two publications, to hire Canadians. If they cannot, then they can apply for seasonal workers via the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. It’s quite a process but worth it because foreign workers are eager for work, work hard and don’t mind the seasonal aspect.
Referencing a federal study on the issue of foreign workers, Larass said the number one reason farmers find it hard to hire local workers is the part-time aspect. “They don’t want a six-month career. Also, the physical nature of the work is a detriment,” said Larass. Structural issues also come into play because farms aren’t near Toronto or other major centres where there is a higher population of workers. For farmers, turnover is a real concern. Domestic workers are prone to quitting, which can be devastating for a farmer with crops ready to harvest.
Wages are another issue and are the third reason seasonal work doesn’t attract local workers, says Dooney. However, it's a difficult issue because Ontario farmers are competing against American and Mexican products. Higher wages means higher-priced products. “Morally, you can always pay more but can you then sell your product?”
Dooney agrees. “I would love to pay workers more. When we hire them, we pay according to the contract and there is not a lot of wiggle room to pay more. When our guys come here, they earn slightly above minimum wage and a small utility fee of $2.36 per day. But remember, they do not have all the bills we have. They pay for groceries. They do not pay for hydro, gas or vehicles. Those are costs the farmers have to pay including free internet and things like that. It’s a tricky one, for sure. I guess I’d ask if consumers are willing to pay more for apples at the grocery store?”
All three panelists recognized Ontario farmers could not survive without temporary foreign workers.
“Workers like Felena are a huge part of our industry. Over one in three (farm) workers are international guest workers,” explains Larass. “Without them, it would be impossible to run local farms.” Most foreign temporary workers hail from Mexico and Jamaica but many also arrive from countries like Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago and even from European countries like the Ukraine.
COVID-19 made it all the more complicated.
Dooney says the pandemic created a lot of extra work. Though there were no outbreaks at Suncrest Orchards, quarantine was a long process that required Dooney to buy groceries for the workers and source their favourite goods, such as tinned milk and salted fish. “Our guys were able to stay on the farm and cook for themselves but it helps for the farmers to be in the know, to provide the food and ingredients they like.” Dooney was also responsible for daily temperature checks and routine COVID-19 checks. “Some of these guys had to take six or seven tests just to come here to work. They go through a lot to work on our farm to help grow food for Canadians.”
Readers who followed the temporary foreign workers issues during COVID-19 know farmers who grow asparagus struggled with production dropping 40 per cent because they could not get their seasonal workers into the country. Airlines were down, government approvals were behind and asparagus is one of the first crops to be harvested in Ontario. By the time strawberries were ready, most workers were on farm and by the end of the year, most farmers had a full contingent of workers, recounts Larass.
Dooney is new to the farming scene but she quickly learned how vital it is to treat workers like family. “These guys live with us for eight months so it is important that they are comfortable and happy when they are here. We did a big bunkhouse renovation this year and it is beautiful, clean and comfortable. We feel if the workers are happy and comfortable, they will feel good and be willing to work hard.”
One of Dooney’s workers has been coming to work at the orchard for 22 years, long before the Dooneys purchased it. “We are so fortunate to have Livian. He is a gentle old soul, so knowledgeable and sweet. We could not run our operation without him.” Working in Canada for so long has allowed Livian to educate his sons, with one becoming a teacher and another son in the army.
Larass says he wished every employer would be like Dooney but recognizes there are farmers who do not treat workers like they ought to. He said there is accountability as the federal government tracks infractions and posts them online. Also, workers are provided with phone numbers to call if they feel they are being mistreated. “It’s not perfect, but there is accountability.” ◊