Agriculture labour shortage feared amid COVID-19 travel bans

Shelby Thevenot
Published: March 17, 2020

There is never a shortage of work to do on Canadian farms, and as Canada halts most non-residents from entering the country, agriculture industry professionals fear unfilled gaps in the labour market may affect production.

As the ground begins to thaw in the spring, Canadian farmers need to start planting crops for the year’s harvest. Temporary foreign workers (TFWs) come to do the work that farmers cannot find local workers to do. Either there are not enough Canadians applying or they lack the necessary skills for the job.

Many of these workers return to the same farms year after year, knowing the equipment and the fields like the back of their hands.

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Chris Connery, a farmer from Manitoba, says about 55 foreign workers come to work on his produce farm each year. They grow crops like broccoli, asparagus, carrots and strawberries.

“We’ve had some of the same workers coming here for over 20 years, and they know the jobs we have here through and through,” Connery told CIC News. “If we don’t have those foreign workers we would either have to retrain people for those jobs or we would have to choose to do other crops.”

Much of Canada’s agricultural industry is concerned, following the COVID-19 measures announced yesterday, that without the ability to bring non-residents into the country they will lose integral members of their team.

Steve Bamford, who sits on the board of directors for Toronto Wholesale Produce Association, said the lack of workers could spell produce shortages in Canada.

“We’re worried about food security because you can’t rely on [the] U.S.A. and Mexico to supply us with fresh fruits and vegetables,” Bamford said in a phone interview.

In addition, some farms may be at risk of losing their entire operations if they cannot adjust to the lack of workers in time to turn a profit.

Many Canadian agriculture industry organizations are working with provincial and federal governments to find some sort of solution. While there is a need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 there is also a need for temporary foreign workers.

“All we know right now is as of March 18, no foreign worker can come into the country,” Bamford said. “And if this is the case that we will not be able to have our seasonal foreign workers come into the country, then we need a plan from Ottawa to support us to see how we’re going to make it through another year.”

Kevin Lemkay, a spokesperson from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, supplied a statement via email from the offices of Canada's Minister of Immigration, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Employment.

"We fully understand the importance of a stable labour force enabling Canadian food supply, and are committed to giving Canadians and businesses the support they need," the statement read. "That is why we are working closely with stakeholders through a joint Emergency Response Committee, consisting of key agricultural and food processing stakeholders and government officials. This will help respond to issues arising from the COVID-19 outbreak."

Canada’s agriculture industry has been struggling with labour market shortages for years, looking to immigrants to help support the industry. The need for consistent labour prompted the formation of the Agri-Food Immigration Pilot that is set to launch March 30. The program is intended to provide a pathway to permanent residence for temporary foreign workers, especially those in the mushroom and meat sectors.

“In 2017, 16,500 jobs went unfilled, which cost the sector $2.9 billion in lost revenues,” the Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council (CAHRC) webpage says. “In every province and across every commodity, labour shortages impact today’s production levels and tomorrow’s growth potential.”

For Connery, it is not only a concern of losing valuable skilled workers but the effect on the livelihoods of the foreign workers themselves.

“We really care about these guys,” Connery said. “It’s wonderful, every year I have somebody come up to me and say, ‘This year I’m going home and building a house,’ or ‘This year I’m putting an addition on.’ These are people we really care about.” will update this article and release additional coronavirus stories as this situation continues to unfold. For information on the coronavirus’ impact on Canadian immigration, refer to this page.

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