Frequently Asked Questions about migrant workers in the fruit and vegetable industry
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It has become commonplace for workers who come to Canada from another country to work seasonally - only part of the year - to be called “migrant workers.” This term actually more accurately describes migratory agricultural workers in countries like the U.S., who travel from farm to farm and region to region to harvest crops as they ripen.
In Canada, “temporary foreign worker” is a more accurate term, as is “seasonal agricultural worker” or “seasonal worker”. That’s because workers are typically hired through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) or Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). They also tend to stay on the same farm for the entire season that they are in Canada. In fact, many have been returning to the same farms for years and some are now bringing their adult children to Canada to work as well.
These acronyms refer to two different government programs through which migrant workers can legally come to Canada to work on fruit and vegetable farms.
The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) is open to workers from Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean Islands. They come to Canada to work on fruit and vegetable farms for a defined period of time before going home for the winter. SAWP workers have the same rights and privileges as Canadian workers, and their employers have the same obligations to those workers as they do for their Canadian employees. This includes minimum wage, health care, workplace insurance coverage, and access to Employment Insurance, from the moment they arrive in Canada.
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) is a federal government program designed to let Canadian employers in certain sectors bring workers to Canada for a set amount of time.
Migrant workers who come to Ontario legally to work on fruit and vegetable farms have access to housing provided by their employers. Most receive this housing for free as part of their employment contract while they are in Canada. Some may pay a modest rent, but this has to be approved by the federal government. Workers live either on the farm where they work or in nearby towns. Dormitory-style housing is common.
Migrant worker housing in Ontario is built, occupied and operated according to fire and building codes and local public health standards. All housing is supervised and inspected by federal government officials, local public health units, and for Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program workers, the liaison officers from their home countries.
Housing inspections have increased substantially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and farmers have made major changes in worker housing to minimize health risks to their workers. Examples include reducing the number of people who live together and creating worker cohorts - people who work together also share living space.
FACT: Worker housing is a priority that farmers and government have focused tremendous attention and resources on in recent years. As of September 2021 - eighteen months into the pandemic - not a single one of approximately 60 penalties issued across Canada was related to housing violations. That’s according to a public list released by Employment and Social Development Canada of employers not compliant with government requirements for employing migrant workers.
However, there are unfortunately some bad instances of worker housing and it’s something that the industry is working to improve. Farmers have been actively participating in government consultations around improvements to worker housing. They’re asking for a consistent and evidence-based housing standard that builds on existing rules and prioritizes public health. At the same time, it must be nimble enough to allow farmers, workers and public health professionals to make necessary adjustments in real-time to keep workers and the public safe in the event of future pandemics or public health emergencies.
Farmers prefer to hire Canadians employees first where possible. In fact, before they are allowed to hire foreign workers, they have to prove that they have made every effort to fill their open jobs with Canadian workers. Farm work is not only physically demanding, it’s also not year-round work. And most Canadian job seekers live in urban centres, far from the farms where workers are desperately needed. That makes these types of positions chronically difficult to fill and even after hiring foreign workers, farms continue to have jobs they can’t fill.
This type of farm work is also very time-sensitive: with fluctuating weather and crops that are perishable, a lot of work must be done in a short amount of time, making for long days. If a crop is ready to harvest on a weekend, for example, that’s when that work needs to be done - waiting until Monday could mean the crop has spoiled and is no longer suitable to be sold to consumers.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many farmers offered jobs to Canadians who found themselves suddenly unemployed. However, most found the work harder and the hours longer than what they were used to and did not stay at their on-farm positions.
Farming schedules are often determined by nature. Growing crops is seasonal so there will always be more work to be done at some times of the year, like planting or harvest, than at others. How much farmers and their employees have to work on a given day depends a lot on the weather and where plants are in their growing cycle.
Fruits and vegetables are perishable, so sometimes a lot of work must be done in a short amount of time. This can makes for workdays that are very different than the average nine-to-five job. If a crop is ready for harvest on the weekend, for example, that’s when that work needs to be done; waiting until Monday could mean the crop has spoiled and is no longer able to be consumed.
Many seasonal migrant workers are in Canada for only parts of the year, like harvest time. Therefore, they are keen to work as many hours as they reasonably can during their limited time here so that they can earn a meaningful income for their family at home. The opportunity to earn Canadian wages is a welcome way to supplement low incomes and limited employment in their home countries.
That’s simply not true. Under Canadian law, Canadian employees and migrant workers are paid the same wages for the same work. The law always ensures that farmers have to pay their workers the highest of three possible rates: the province’s minimum wage, a standard seasonal agricultural rate set by Employment and Social Development Canada and determined by the type of work being done, or the rate an employer would otherwise pay a Canadian worker doing the same job.
Workers who are in Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) are protected by strict rules set by both the governments in their home countries and the Canadian government. Workers and farmers must both follow these rules to participate in the program.
International governments on SAWP - Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and Eastern Caribbean Islands - also employ liaison officers in Canada who work together with Canadian officials to support SAWP workers while there are here. This includes things like non-workplace medical care, worker compensation, and personal issues, for example. Migrant workers in Canada through SAWP have the same workplace protections as Canadian workers, including minimum wage, health care, and workplace insurance coverage, and access to Employment Insurance, from the moment they arrive in Canada.
Workers in Canada under the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) primary agriculture stream must sign a formal contract with their employer that outlines what is expected of farmers and what benefits workers will receive.
All international farm workers have mandated access to health care in Canada. Just as it is for all Canadians, health care falls under provincial jurisdiction and specifics differ from province to province.
Under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, employers must provide private insurance at no cost to the workers until they become eligible for provincial health insurance.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, migrant workers have had the same access to testing and medical care as Canadian workers and have been prioritized for vaccination. In fact, many incoming workers now have the option of being vaccinated at the airport when they arrive in Canada if they wish.
Migrant workers have the same rights to apply for permanent residency as anyone else from outside of Canada. In fact, having Canadian work experience is considered a significant advantage in eligibility under Canadian immigration programs.
Farmers are not opposed to workers staying in Canada permanently, and some have even gone as far as to help interested employees navigate the immigration process. Unfortunately, the biggest barriers to immigration for all international applicants, not just migrant workers, lie with government policies around universal language and education requirements.