Do migrant farm workers have access to any support systems?

With the help of many groups, organizations, and funding sources, there are an abundance of resources made available to migrant farm workers during their stay in Ontario. In this blog, we’ll take a look at a few of the great support systems in Ontario for the migrant farm workers who come to work in the farming industry each year.

Community health centres

In Ontario, community health centres (CHCs) play a crucial role in promoting and maintaining the well-being of individuals and communities by providing support for the emotional, physical, and social needs of those in their area. Examples include providing accessible primary health care, engaging in community outreach to promote healthy lifestyles, and having the resources to offer culturally responsive care.

For many years, CHCs with migrant farm workers in their community have made it a priority to ensure workers feel welcomed in the community and aren’t afraid to get the healthcare coverage they are entitled to under the contracts of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program.

The Grand River CHC is one of several CHCs across the province that provides resources and services to migrant farm workers. They provide primary health care clinics on farms, at mobile clinics in town centres, or virtually. Grand River CHC also continues to explore ways to address health and wellbeing concerns through social work and health promotion interventions, while offering primary health care for issues such as muscular skeletal, hypertension, diabetes, skin, sexual health, or eye issues. Spanish speaking health professionals are made available at the clinics to ensure the workers are comfortable and there is no miscommunication.

Each year, the Grand River CHC, along with many of its partner agencies, holds a health fair for farm workers. This year, the fair is set to occur on June 29. For more details please visit their website.

Migrant Worker Support Program

In 2021, to further strengthen the support for migrant farm workers, the federal government introduced the Migrant Worker Support Program (MWSP) to fund community-based initiatives for workers. The purpose of the program, as outlined by the Employment and Social Development Canada, is to ensure the health, safety, and quality of life for workers while they are living and working in Canada.

TeaMWork Windsor-Essex is a project that falls under the MWSP and currently provides funding to 11 different organizations in the Windsor, Essex, and Lambton regions. This includes language services, legal-aid, mental health services, and many more! Visit their website to learn more about the events, opportunities, and success stories that have been made possible by this amazing initiative.

Regional groups

There are other regional support groups like Migrant Matters Flamborough, which, with the help of volunteers, offer weekly Sunday gatherings for workers in the area. Their efforts are highlighted by a huge BBQ celebration in August, which is a great social setting and usually an opportunity to grab a tasty meal. There  are many similar groups in other parts of the province, too.

For more information about migrant farm workers, including wages,  check-out some of our other blog posts at https://www.morethanamigrantworker.ca/blog/.

What is the housing situation like for migrant farm workers?

One of the most significant benefits for migrant farm workers coming to Canada through the legal government-regulated Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program is housing.

Given the rural location of most farms, finding housing in the area can be extremely difficult. Luckily for the workers, housing is provided by their employers and is something they don’t have to worry about.

First off, it’s an absolute must for employers to provide these farm workers with housing, as outlined by the government. Without the guarantee of appropriate housing, employers cannot hire workers from SAWP or the TFW program.

SAWP workers live completely rent-free, and although TFW program workers pay rent, it’s capped at a maximum of $30 a week. Most employers have built housing units on the farm, which range in size depending on the number of workers they employ. Some workers live in single rooms, although it’s more usual for workers to have a roommate and share a common area, very similar to what you see with oil rig workers in Western Canada.

There are also annual inspections of all housing units by government officials, local public health units and, for SAWP workers, liaison officers from their home countries. Among the things inspectors look for is ensuring that all housing is pest-free, can maintain a minimum temperature of 20oC, is properly outfitted with furniture and appliances, and has clean water, ventilation and adequate sanitation facilities. These requirements are the absolute minimum, but many growers go above and beyond what’s required to provide fantastic housing for their workers.

Maricela works at Meyers Fruit Farms in Niagara Region. Meyers has recently built five new housing units to accommodate their 40 employees. Watch the below video as Maricela walks us through the new housing unit she lives in with her colleagues.

Asparagus grower Mike Chromczak gives us a look at the units on his farm. Each four-bedroom unit houses six workers who share two full bathrooms, two fridges, laundry facilities, a spacious kitchen and common living area.

Unfortunately, there’s a good chance you’ve come across images of migrant farm worker housing that appears rundown, unsafe and frankly unhabitable. In most cases, these situations involve workers who are undocumented or working without legal permits,  a precarious status that leaves them vulnerable to mistreatment. Both the federal and provincial governments have announced their intentions to prevent the exploitation of these undocumented people, which has the full support of the agriculture sector.

In 2022, the federal government implemented new anti-reprisal rules specific to these migrant workers to supplement existing provincial protections such as those in Ontario which protect all employees, including local and foreign ones.  Between the federal and provincial regulations, the workers have several layers of protection against being penalized or punished for speaking out about unsafe working or inadequate living conditions.

To learn more about the government regulated streams, including the differences between the SAWP and TFW program, read more of our blog posts at https://www.morethanamigrantworker.ca/blog/.

Experienced labour on farms

Unfortunately, many people imagine farm work as being in the field doing the same repetitive task all day. While there can be days like this (similar to many other jobs!), the reality is that there are tons of unique jobs that require different skillsets and levels of experience around the fruit and vegetable farm. From operating harvesters to fixing irrigation systems, migrant farm workers play huge roles on the farms they work at, and in many cases, they involve these specialized tasks.

The technology on farms is incredible. For example, think of the last time you drove past or visited a winery. Notice how straight the grape vines are planted? This is possible due to Global Positioning Systems (GPS), just one of countless expensive pieces of equipment you’ll find on a farm. To operate any of these machines, you must have in-depth knowledge and training to ensure your safety and that of others. It can take months, even years, to become trained on some of the more advanced technology.

Fermin works at a potato farm in Alliston, Ontario and says when he started working at the farm, he was performing various tasks in the field and on the smaller machines. Now he operates the large harvesting equipment and technology in the packing facilities.

“I work in the processing area inside, chipping potatoes. I am happy anywhere, but I love technology and have learned many new skills in both places. I now can operate the large harvesting equipment in the fields and am grateful for this opportunity from my foreman,” Fermin says.

There’s also a science to planting and growing fruits and vegetables. Knowing when to plant and harvest, when to irrigate, when to spray – there are so many factors that go into producing the best quality fruits and vegetables safely and efficiently. Combine all this with outside factors like weather, and you can see why it’s important for workers to have extensive knowledge of how certain conditions will impact the crops and be able to react accordingly.

Jesús works on a vegetable farm and prepares the grounds for planting and harvesting. This includes spraying, irrigating and other regular maintenance check-ups to ensure the fields and soil are in peak condition.

What makes the work done in Ontario even more incredible is that back home, many of these workers have different jobs. Often, they are related to agriculture, but it’s not uncommon for these men and women to work in other sectors like education or culinary. To hear more of their stories, like Carlos talking about the work he does at an apple orchard, visit www.morethanamigrantworker.ca/videos.

Soccer tournament shows off the talent of local migrant farm workers

Football? Soccer? Whatever you want to call it, there’s no denying the ability the sport has at bringing people together. Look at the World Cup, for example. One look into the crowd at a World Cup game and you see flags waving, faces painted, groups singing, and so many more little acts of celebrating sport and culture.

On August 13, the Ontario town of Simcoe played host to the annual Farms of Norfolk County Football Association tournament, which provided a glimpse into the sense of community building the sport can have. The tournament hosted 12 teams of migrant farm workers, with each team representing a different farm from the area.

Despite the friendly nature of the tournament, make no mistake, each team was there to win. Tryouts, practices, exhibition games – some of the teams treated the lead-up to the tournament very seriously, as could easily be seen by the chemistry on the field.

Off the field felt more like a cultural celebration than a soccer tournament. For lunch? Traditional Jamaican and Mexican cuisine, including jerk chicken, tacos, burritos and much more. Lunch was accompanied by a local DJ who played great music for spectators and players to enjoy and dance along to, as many did.

The sidelines of the games were another sight to see. Flags of countries represented by the players waving in the air, alongside pom-poms, horns and any other noise-making item that could be found. Mini-games of soccer were formed by people of all ages looking to get in on the action.

Migrant farm workers coming to Ontario and Canada through the government-regulated Seasonal Agricultural Worker and Temporary Foreign Worker Programs do so much to ensure that Ontarians can enjoy local grown fruits and vegetables. It can be easy to forget that their jobs here in Ontario only make up a very small part of who they are. Events like this soccer tournament allow them to show off their personalities in ways people rarely get to see. And for them, it’s an opportunity to unwind, bond with each other, and most importantly have fun playing the sport they all love.

Soccer may be the most popular pastime for most of the workers, but it certainly isn’t the only one. Cooking, music, and  playing cards to name a few, are among others To learn more about the workers and what they like to do in their spare time, visit morethanamigrantworker.ca.

The journey to Canada for SAWP workers

For many migrant farm workers who come to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), it’s been a long journey in the making. It’s no guarantee when a worker applies to SAWP that they are given the opportunity to join the program. That’s what makes it so special for workers like Ermel, who applied for the program twice before he was accepted into the program and admits that he chose to come to Canada to improve the lives of his three children.

First off, there is a certain list of countries whose workers are eligible to participate in SAWP. This includes Mexico, Jamaica and several other Caribbean nations. Canadian farms must demonstrate that there are no Canadians to fill the positions at the farm by completing a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA). The LMIA must be first approved by Service Canada and then can be shared with the government of one of the participating countries who will then do the recruitment and hiring of workers in response to the request from the farm.

As for the workers applying to join the SAWP, it’s certainly not something done on a whim. For most, they have been thinking about it for years and many have family members who have served as inspiration to apply for the program. The application process takes dedication and hard work as workers must fill out many documents, along with healthcare check-ups and meet certain requirements as laid out by their home country’s government. Mexico, for example, requires workers to have some sort of background in agriculture in order to be eligible. It’s a rigorous process run by their government, not just something anyone can sign up for.

To so many of these men and women, SAWP is a major deal. As Carlos from Jamaica says, “It takes a lot to know you are leaving your family back at home, but it is worth it.”

Another reason for SAWP being so important is the protection and benefits that workers receive from it while in Canada. This includes things like housing, healthcare, fair wages and more. Unfortunately, undocumented workers coming illegally into Canada do not receive these same protections, leaving them vulnerable to mistreatment. This is why it’s crucial for workers to come to Canada through one of the government-regulated streams.

To learn more about the government-regulated programs, check-out one of our recent blog posts detailing the different options for workers to come to Canada. https://www.morethanamigrantworker.ca/sawp-tfw-program-undocumented-what-do-these-mean/

Welcome kits for arriving migrant farm workers

Arriving in a new country can be daunting, especially if you’re there for work. And nobody likes those long travel days where sometimes it feels like you may never reach your destination. It’s no different for migrant farm workers making the trip from places like Mexico and Jamaica. They’re long days, and while there’s surely some excitement when the workers arrive, after the arrival in Toronto most workers still have a long car ride ahead of them to the farm they’re employed by.

To help try and make the day little easier for arriving workers the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) partnered with the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA) to put together welcome kits for workers to receive upon their arrival in Toronto. This started in 2022 and after receiving a lot of positive feedback, the initiative continued into 2023.

Admittedly, the kits aren’t designed to last for months and provide several meals, but they are able to give a small piece of comfort during a long travel day. Included in the kits are snacks (beef jerky, protein bars, granola bars), water, safety kits, reflective arm bands and resources designed to make the transition into Ontario a little bit smoother.

This is not the first initiative that’s been undertaken at the airport. During the COVID-19 pandemic the airport also housed a vaccination clinic for arriving workers where they would have the option to take the vaccine. Educational resources were made available, but it was ultimately the decision of the workers on whether they wanted to take the vaccine. Meals were also provided for workers.

For more information on the migrant farm worker programs, please visit morethanamigrantworker.ca.

SAWP? TFW Program? Undocumented? What do these mean?!

As you browse through the More than a Migrant Worker (MTAMW) website and do more reading about migrant farm workers in Canada, you’ll probably notice a few acronyms that keep popping up: SAWP and TFW program. These represent the two legal streams for workers to come to Canada to work on farms. But why are there two programs? Are they different? What are the benefits? In this blog we’ll go through the two programs and break down why they’re so beneficial to migrant farm workers and the farmers who hire them.

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) began in 1966 when a group of 264 Jamaican workers arrived in Ontario to harvest apples. Today, the program is available in five regions: Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean islands. If Canadian horticultural farm employers can’t find suitable Canadian employees, they can employ foreign workers through this program, which provides them with a much-needed, reliable labour source. Under SAWP, workers can stay for a maximum of eight months and are guaranteed at least 240 hours of work.

The Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program, most commonly referred to as Ag Stream in the agriculture sector, is very similar in that Canadian employers can hire foreign employees to fill labour shortages. While SAWP is specifically designed for the seasonality of the horticulture sector, the TFW Program is much broader and can be used by any employer able to demonstrate the need for foreign workers. The major difference is that under this program, employers are able to hire workers from almost anywhere around the globe and that the work term can be up to a maximum of 24 months.

The benefits to these programs are massive – both for employees and employers. For workers, this includes government-approved wage rates, subsidized or free housing, access to health care under OHIP, Employment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan and workplace insurance coverage and safety protection – just like any other Canadian employee is entitled to. Workers with permits under the SAWP or TFW Program also have access to multilingual, 24/7 federal government support.

It’s also important to note that both programs are government regulated to ensure employers are meeting certain standards when it comes to things like housing conditions, wage rates, workplace safety and more. This means frequent provincial, federal and foreign government inspections for growers who employ migrant farm workers.

Unfortunately, there is also a third segment of workers who don’t share the benefits of the SAWP and TFW Program. These are people who are undocumented and don’t have legal work permits. Their uncertain status leaves them vulnerable to mistreatment, regardless of which sector they work in. Governments at the federal and provincial level have made it a priority to prevent the exploitation of these undocumented people and the farming sector is fully supportive of this aim.

For more information on the legal streams available for migrant farm workers to come to Canada, please visit https://www.morethanamigrantworker.ca/facts-stats/.

What do migrant farm workers’ wages and expenses look like?

It’s important to ensure migrant farm workers are paid and compensated fairly for the hard work they do to help feed us. Many people automatically assume that workers in the federally regulated Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program are paid poorly or even below minimum wage, but this is not the case.

All migrant workers employed in Canada under one of these programs is guaranteed at least the minimum wage and often more. For example, wages for SAWP and TFW workers in Ontario are slightly above the minimum wage because under the terms of the programs they arrive through, they receive the higher of either the provincial minimum wage or a federally calculated wage rate that is based on inflation.

What is perhaps less known than this wage guarantee is that farm workers employed through these two programs receive other important employment benefits for the work they do in Ontario. The most substantial benefits are in the form of subsidized housing and travel during their employment here. For example, workers hired through the SAWP program receive fully subsidized housing at no cost to them and have half their flight to Canada paid; workers hired through other agricultural TFW programs receive highly subsidized housing – with a maximum of $30/week rent paid by a worker – and their flight to Canada is fully subsidized.  These subsidies must be provided by employers under the federal program rules and would add several dollars to the workers’ hourly pay if converted into their cash equivalent.

Several smaller but not insignificant benefits include that the housing provided to Ontario is typically fully furnished and in many cases, employers offer free Wifi and TV.  The housing for farm workers coming to Canada under the SAWP and TFW programs is regularly inspected by local and federal departments and also may be visited by officials from the workers’ home country at any time in order to ensure it is up to standard and comfortable for the workers to live in.

The largest expense for workers while they live in Ontario is groceries, as this is not an expense covered by employers. A lot of the workers LOVE to cook, and you can often find them cooking traditional dishes from the countries they are from. Read more about the restaurant Desrine owns back in Jamaica or watch Errol discuss his favourite meal to cook for everyone.

As most farms are located in rural areas, workers will have designated times each week when they head to the local grocery store to do their shopping for the upcoming week. While not required to provide any form of transportation for workers, many employers arrange times for workers to access the transportation needed to run their errands.

Other expenses include clothing, cellphone bills and other little things that workers may need during their time in Ontario.

If you’re curious about more information on the SAWP or TFW program visit https://www.morethanamigrantworker.ca/faqs/.

Migrant farm workers’ access to healthcare in Ontario

“I can only say really good things about the healthcare system.”

A common misconception around migrant farm workers in Ontario is they don’t have access to the same healthcare as Ontario residents. While the workers may not be full-time Ontario residents, they do receive the same healthcare access to OHIP as permanent residents do in this province. In fact, it’s mandated under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program that workers receive this coverage.

Elly Hoff, Human Resource specialist at Meyer’s Farms (check out this The Grower article. Heated floors!!) in Niagara-on-the-Lake indicates that employers are responsible for making sure that workers are registered with OHIP.

Every five years, that means taking them to a physical location like a Service Ontario office to have an updated photo taken; in other years card renewals are done online.

Importantly, international workers like those arriving through the SAWP and other TFW programs are covered by OHIP even while workers wait for their new or updated cards to arrive. Healthcare providers are not allowed to deny critical care to them, and for non-urgent care where up -front payment may be requested by service providers, there is a reimbursement process once OHIP registration is completed.

In addition to having the same OHIP coverage as Ontarians, international workers often purchase supplemental private medical insurance through bulk deals brokered by their home country and which covers medical expenses such as certain diagnostic services and prescription drugs that fall outside of the services and drugs covered by OHIP. This is done to ensure workers have the comfort of knowing that they are always covered in some way.

With the healthcare system under stress from the COVID-19 pandemic, there were important initiatives in place for workers to receive information regarding vaccinations and COVID-19 safety. These initiatives included a non-mandatory vaccination clinic at the airport if workers wanted to get vaccinated on arrival and several other safety resources to allow them to make informed decisions about their health.

Of course, in a perfect world everyone would stay healthy during their time in Ontario. Despite proper safety and healthcare procedures in place, just like anywhere accidents and illnesses do occur.

Hoff shared a recent story of a worker who was diagnosed with cancer just weeks before his contract ended, when he was supposed to return home to Jamaica. Under normal circumstances, when a worker’s work contract expires, so does their OHIP coverage. In this case, there was a phenomenal team effort between Hoff, the Jamaican liaison office and local doctors in Ontario to ensure the worker would receive the healthcare required at no cost – exactly the same as an Ontario resident would be treated.

“Everyone seems to be working together for this young man. They are on it, and they are there for him,” Hoff said.

The worker continues to undergo cancer treatment in Ontario. We continue to think of him and hope for a recovery. He’s got a tough road ahead.

Visit https://www.morethanamigrantworker.ca/facts-stats/ to learn more facts and stats about Ontario migrant farm workers.