By Lilian Schaer
When you ask Ontario fruit and vegetable farmers about the international workers they employ, they often mention that many of those workers have been coming to work here for years, even decades.
It’s that opportunity to work in Canada, through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and the agriculture stream of the federal Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, that is helping them build better lives for themselves, their families, and their communities in their home countries.
Errol Mitchell has been working in Canada every year for 16 years through SAWP, which has been matching people from Mexico and the Caribbean with seasonal jobs on fruit and vegetable farms for more than 50 years.
The carpenter from Jamaica has spent the last seven years at Truly Green, a southern Ontario greenhouse where he’s part of an international team that grows and harvests tomatoes. He’s proud of his four children, including his oldest son who has just finished university and is now an electrical engineer.
“The future looks good because I’ve been coming here for 16 years and I can see the benefits I have achieved because of these 16 years,” he says. “It is a very good environment to work in and a very good job. I don’t love the cold, but I do love Canada.”
Filiberto Magin Alvarado is a coffee grower in Mexico who has spent 11 of his 16 seasons in Canada working in the same vineyard in Niagara Region. SAWP has been a great way to help him earn money to support his family, and for the last four years, his son German Magin Lopez has been coming with him to work on the same farm.
“The boss has given me the opportunity to bring my son here to work; I thought it was very kind especially when things are a little difficult back home. He comes to earn money to support his family,” Filiberto says, adding that being given the opportunity to have jobs in Canada has helped improve their lives.
Daniel Morales is also one of the more than 17,000 workers who comes to Ontario every year through SAWP. It’s something he’s been doing for more than 20 years and for more than a decade, the Mexican has been working at Hi-Berry Farm near Port Elgin, arriving in spring for planting and going home in November after the last crops have been harvested.
“I came to work here because for me, it is a great opportunity to learn new experiences and support my family,” he says. “Canada has been a country that opens its doors to us, and the people are very friendly. They wait for us every year and welcome us as if it is our second home.”
According to the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, lack of economic opportunities at home is what attracts most migrant farm workers to jobs available through SAWP and the TFW program.
At the same time, farms are eager to hire as they struggle to fill hands-on, on-farm jobs growing and harvesting produce – agriculture has long had one of the highest vacancy rates of any sector in the country.
“We depend on these workers to help us grow many popular but labour-intensive fruit and vegetable crops and without them, we simply wouldn’t be able to keep growing those crops here,” says OFVGA policy advisor Stefan Larrass, adding this would make Canada much more dependent on other countries for its food supply.
Luke Charbonneau of Hi-Berry Farms says his family wouldn’t be farming without their international workforce. That became clear during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic when travel restrictions made it hard for workers to come to Canada, and Charbonneau tried to hire more local staff.
“This is a skilled workforce who have been coming here for 20 years. They know our business and know our operation. We certainly wouldn’t be farming without them,” he says. “When you know anybody for a long period of time, you develop relationships with them. We’ve become friends, have found out about their families and what motivates them to come here to Canada. They love their country. But they’re here for a reason – to make a better life for their whole families and we’re really privileged to be friends with them.”
To learn more about migrant farm workers in their own words, visit www.morethanamigrantworker.ca.