Farming Out Canadian Jobs

Farming out Canadian jobs
Despite economic climate, importing foreign workers a growth industry

The Ottawa Sun
Last Updated: 5th September 2009, 4:14am

If more than 400,000 Canadians lost their jobs this year, and another 800,000 are collecting employment insurance, why did Canada need to import almost 200,000 foreign workers?

The question might leave some scratching their heads, but the facts are undeniable: The federal government's Temporary Foreign Worker Program brought in 192,519 workers in 2008 for more than 500 different occupations — and more were expected this year. Some work in finance, others in education or entertainment.

Nannies and home-care workers were the second largest group in 2008 with 12,864 migrants, up from 2,614 in 1980. But the largest group was farm workers at 25,063, up from 7,188 in 1980.


Farmers have to pay the airfare, visa fees, and housing costs and do all the paperwork for worker's compensation and provincial health insurance. They also have to deduct the correct amounts of CPP, EI and income tax from an employee's pay.

“The increase in the use of migrant workers is on the rise in most of the industrialized West,” said Kerry Preibisch, a University of Guelph professor specializing in migrant farm workers. “A lot of employers and countries are using migrant workers to achieve flexibility on their farms and flexibility in the labour market overall.”

Ken Forth is a sixth generation farmer in southwestern Ontario and president of the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Service (FARMS), a non-profit outfit that co-ordinates requests from farmers for seasonal agricultural workers. Forth said he can't survive without migrant workers.

“We need seasonal workers and we don't have enough Canadians that want to do it. It's as simple as that,” he said.

Forth employs 16 men from Jamaica at his broccoli farm in Lynden. He said most of his workers come back year after year and one is now in his 26th season. The average migrant, he said, stays here for 20 weeks. The maximum allowed under federal law is eight months.

Forth said hiring laid off auto or steel workers is a non-starter because they don't want to take jobs working 70 to 80 hours a week for $9.50 to $10 an hour when the maximum EI payment available is $447 per week, or just more than $11 an hour based on a 40-hour week.


“Another reason migrant workers are so valuable is they don't have social commitments,” said Preibisch. “They don't have a family to go home to and they don't have a sick child to prevent them from coming to work.”

Some criticize the program for working migrants too long, while others criticize it for restricting their immigration status.

“The government might want to think about the status issue so that workers could bring their families here so farmers could have access to these types of workers on an ongoing basis,” said Stan Raper, national co-ordinator of the Agriculture Workers Alliance.

Preibisch agrees and said restricting the status of migrant workers is unjust. Farmers, however, disagree. They argue the shortage of farm workers — which all agree exists — would remain even if workers were allowed to immigrate.

Forth said his family has sponsored families to move to Canada from Europe as far back as 1927 and the story was always the same: They took the first full-time job they could get and left the seasonal farm work behind.

Raper said the way to resolve this problem is to attract Canadian workers to seasonal labour on farms by paying them more money and offering benefits. But farmers and others are quick to point out that large supermarket chains set the prices for fruit and vegetables, making it almost impossible for farmers to pass on increased costs to consumers.

“The retail market is very heavily concentrated amongst a few players and that really puts a lot of constraints on growers,” said Preibisch.

So unless Canadians are willing to work longer hours for less, or pay more for food, migrant workers will likely remain a significant part of the agricultural economy.