Government urged to speed up foreign-worker applications by farms and meat plants

No surprise. Some administrative bottlenecks likely can (and should) be reduced (e.g., reintroduction of online forms, more streamlined application and renewal applications):

Canadian farmers and meat processors are urging Ottawa to quickly bring in more foreign workers to help ease a labour crisis that is hurting the country’s agriculture industry.

They want the federal government to raise caps and speed up applications for the temporary foreign worker program to allow them to increase production.

Agriculture is one of many sectors struggling to add staff as the Canadian economy tries to recover from the damage caused by the coronavirus.

Although farms and plants were not subject to the sorts of lockdowns faced by restaurants or retailers, the pandemic made travel to rural sites difficult and slowed or stopped international travel. As well, COVID-19 outbreaks in some facilities put migrant workers’ health in danger and hampered operations.

But, agricultural business leaders say, the flow of foreign workers to Canada is integral to keeping the sector functioning as it has struggled for years to retain domestic employees.

Groups, including the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA), Mushrooms Canada and the Canadian Meat Council, say application processing times have grown exponentially during the pandemic, which is making it more difficult for farms and plants to maximize their production.

“When we talk about unfilled jobs, what we’re talking about is lost opportunity,” said Mary Robinson, CFA president and partner of a family farm operation that produces soy, barley and hay in Prince Edward Island. The CFA estimated the agriculture industry lost about $2.9-billion in revenue in 2020 because of low productivity, or about 4.5 per cent of overall sales.

Canadian agriculture has increasingly relied on bringing in workers from overseas to make up for shortfalls in domestic hiring. According to a Statistics Canada analysis from 2020, 27.4 per cent of all workers on crop production in Canada were temporary foreign workers (TFWs).

Meat processors have fewer foreign workers because, by law, there is a cap of 10 per cent or 20 per cent of their work force that can be TFWs. The percentage depends on the amount of a plant’s historical use of the program.

Marie-France MacKinnon, vice-president of public affairs at the Canadian Meat Council, said her group is calling for the cap to be raised to 30 per cent, which is where it was before the Ottawa lowered it in 2014. That year, the Conservative government tightened the rules to the TFW program, responding to reports that it was being overused and abused by some Canadian businesses.

“Our labour shortage is critical right now,” Ms. MacKinnon said. “It’s over 4,000 empty butcher stations from across the country.”

The federal government said in a statement Thursday that adjustments to the program are made on a continuing basis, depending on changes in labour-market conditions.

Mark Chambers, vice-president of Canadian pork production at Alberta-based Sunterra Farms, says his production runs below capacity because of a shortage of workers. He said his pork-processing plant has 120 stations, 20 of which are empty because there is no one to work them.

Mr. Chambers said he has had difficulty attracting new domestic workers to the company’s farms and plants, which he attributes to the low population of the rural communities, the reluctance of urban Canadians to work in the country and the nature of the work.

“You can’t completely fill every position with Canadians,” he said.

As part of the application to bring in a temporary foreign worker, employers first have to fill out a Labour Market Impact Assessment to show that no Canadians want the job. The federal government unveiled a new online form last year to speed up applications. But the website went down in August and has remained offline in the months since then, forcing employers to once again file by e-mail or fax.

Mr. Chambers said using the online portal, the turnaround time on an application was two to seven days – but now that he’s back to old methods, it’s lengthened to two to four weeks.

A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said some “technical issues” emerged on the website after an update, and department officials are still working on a fix. The government was not able to provide a timeline for when it would be online again.

The government also said processing times have increased because of an increase in the number of applications.

Representatives of the meat industry say their goal is to bring workers into Canada under the TFW program and then sponsor them for permanent residency, because their ultimate aim is to create a long-term work force in the sector. Ottawa made that easier with the launch of the Agri-Food Immigration Pilot in 2020, which allows agricultural employers to sponsor non-seasonal, full-time employees for permanent residency under some conditions.

Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance of Canada, said if Canada’s economy requires an influx of new immigrants, those people should be brought in through permanent-residency programs and not work permits that are tied to individual employers.

He said migrant workers who have to rely on their employers’ good graces to stay in the country are open to exploitation and abuse, such as having to endure unsafe working conditions. He said he has worked with TFWs who feared lodging labour complaints because they could lose their work permits if they did.

“Our members say this isn’t a pathway [to permanent residency], it’s a minefield where very few of us will survive to get to the other end,” Mr. Hussan said. “And most of us will be injured or hurt or forced to leave the country.”

Mr. Hussan said one solution is for TFWs and their sponsorship status to be protected under collective bargaining agreements, which helps shield those workers from employer reprisals.

One such agreement covers about 2,000 workers at the Maple Leafs Foods’ pork-processing plant in Brandon. That agreement requires all TFWs to be sponsored for permanent residence, which they can qualify for under the provincial nominee system after working two years.


Advocate warns new agri-food pilot is inaccessible for many critical migrant workers

I would reserve judgement until we see how the program works or doesn’t work in practice. As a pilot, it allows the government to test the approach and adjust as necessary, as it did with The Atlantic Immigration Pilot (now no longer a pilot)”

The federal government’s new agri-food pilot program gives too much power to employers and won’t be accessible for labourers hoping to gain permanent residence status, migrants workers’ advocates say.

Applications for the long-awaited pilot opened on Friday, after being delayed for some months amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said the pilot is a “slap in the face” to migrant workers who have been deemed essential during the coronavirus shutdowns, and now can’t access a pathway to citizenship due to the program’s stringent requirements.

“By and large, it’s not a program that’s designed to work for the people,” Hussan said in an interview with iPolitics. “It’s an employer-driven program that the vast majority of workers won’t be able to access.”

The three-year pilot was presented by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada as a way to help employers in meat processing, mushroom and greenhouse production, as well as livestock-raising, by providing a pathway to permanent residence for temporary foreign workers who are already in Canada. The department said a total of 2,750 applications will be accepted annually throughout the pilot.

But Hussan pointed to the education and language testing requirements for the program, which he believes that migrant workers won’t be able to access.

The program requires applicants to have either a Canadian high school diploma or an educational credential assessment report, from a designated organization or professional body, that shows they’ve completed a foreign credential at the secondary school level or above. The workers must also meet minimum language requirements: a level four in the Canadian Language Benchmarks of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The test must be considered approved, and no older than two years.

Keith Currie, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, acknowledged the language and education requirements may need to be adjusted as the pilot is studied. Unlike the Temporary Foreign Workers program, which is another avenue for migrant workers to access employment in Canada, he noted that the pilot requires the same language and education testing necessary for those seeking full citizenship.

“We just want to make sure that things, rules aren’t too stringent to make it viable for workers to stay,” he said.

Applicants also must prove they have enough money to settle in Canada, eligible work experience, a minimum of 1,560 hours of non-seasonal, full-time work in the past three years, and a job offer letter.

Hussan told iPolitics that many migrant workers come in and out of Canada, and therefore may not be able to meet the hours requirement, which are to be counter over a total period of at least 12 months. As well, he said the job offer requirement will exacerbate employers’ power, claiming that the measure hasn’t been used in federal immigration programs before. Such criteria exists in some provincial regulations though, he said, adding that they’ve proven problematic in some instances.

“We’ve seen multiple examples of employers use these job offers to stop workers from speaking out,” he said.

Currie said he hadn’t heard any complaints about the requirement to have a job offer letter, and said it made sense that the federal government would want to ensure applicants had employment waiting for them. Agriculture producers, he said, were welcoming the program and had advocated for its introduction. Many seasonal workers returned year after year, he said, or sent their children or grandchildren.

“They’re beginning to almost be like family to some of these operations,” he said.

Currie also said the program will help shore up the agriculture sector’s labour needs, where tens of thousands of labour jobs go unfulfilled each year.

In June, the Senate committee on agriculture and forestry released a report forecasting a worsening of farmers’ difficulties with finding workers.  The report referenced testimony from the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council in saying the country’s agriculture sector was short 59,000 workers in 2019 — a figure that could reach 114,000 by 2025.

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino said in a release that the pilot aimed to attract applicants who could establish themselves in Canada, while supporting the labour needs of farmers and processors.

“It’s very important that we support our farmers and food processors to make sure they have the workers they need to help strengthen Canada’s food security,” he said.

But Hussan stressed that migrants who make up a critical part of Canada’s agricultural workforce should be valued for the contribution they made to the sector — and claimed the government had skipped over migrant advocates’ organizations in their consultations and assessments within the agricultural realm.

“Canada clearly needs these workers,” Hussan said. “The program should be designed with them in mind.”

Source: Advocate warns new agri-food pilot is inaccessible for many critical migrant workers

Federal guidelines for temporary foreign workers aren’t enforceable, says advocate

Of note. Legitimate concern although the associated position by the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change for the government to “extend EI benefits to workers who chose not to travel to Canada this year due to coronavirus concerns” and some other demands are largely non-starters:

The federal government’s new guidelines for employers of temporary foreign workers coming to Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic won’t offer substantial protections for critical agricultural labourers, says a migrant workers advocate.

Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, says the federal government must create enforcement mechanisms for these new guidelines to ensure the rights of workers are upheld.

“We need proactive enforcement,” said Hussan, who’s also a member of the Migrant Rights Network, a coalition of self-organized groups of refugees and migrants.

“We are very far away from instituting actual protection for essential migrant workers.”

Employment and Social Development Canada published the guidelines late last month, which include instructions that workers must self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival to Canada and employers must pay workers for the time they spend in self-isolation.

Hussan, though, said many workers aren’t aware of their rights because the guidelines are only available in English. He said organizations like MWAC created education materials to share with workers so they could understand employment rights and social distancing.

“What is the point of a guideline if the workers who it’s supposed to protect doesn’t know [the guideline],” he asked.

Hussan said some members have been told to work by their employers, despite the self-isolation guidelines, and then were refused pay when they declined, to adhere to self-isolation measures. He also said some workers are in quarantine and employers aren’t providing groceries or medication they’ve requested, with local churches instead stepping in.

He said the federal government should create calling and internet hotlines for foreign workers to file complaints about their employers anonymously, as well as to have regular spot checks at farms where migrant workers are hosted.

“We need proactive enforcement,” he said.

Keith Currie, first vice president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said despite some frustration among members about not having access to labourers during their self-isolation period, farmers are prepared to do whatever is necessary to maintain Canada’s foreign labour force — including following the protocols set in place by the government.

“The government made it very clear that [migrant workers] are to be paid for these two weeks, so [farmers] will do what they have to do,” he said.

Currie, who’s also president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, said farmers would like the government to include migrant workers under the employment insurance benefits that have been announced for Canadian workers rather than paying them out of pocket. Meanwhile, he said proper payment to foreign workers will be documented through a businesses’ tax filing.

“[Famers] will build that unto their business case, and they will pay [migrant workers] for the 30 hours a week while they’re in isolation,” he said. “It’s all on the record.”

Hussan also said migrants workers deserve to be treated like permanent workers as a permanent part of Canada’s labour force. As a part of this, he said the government should extend EI benefits to workers who chose not to travel to Canada this year due to coronavirus concerns. Workers who grow ill from COVID-19 should be covered under Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), but Hussan said some workers don’t have access to valid SINs because they just arrived in the country and Service Canada offices are closed. He said the federal government should make CERB available on the basis of expired SINs for workers that can’t renew their number this year.

Hussan said quarantine measures are showing the necessity of “urgent immigration reform,” including a national housing strategy, noting that workers with temporary status can’t enforce their rights “even when facing a deadly pandemic.”

He pointed to a COVID-19 outbreak in a Kelowna B.C. nursery, where 14 migrants workers have tested positive for the virus, with a total of 63 in self-isolation.  The migrant workers arrived in Kelowna from outside Canada on March 12, before any travel restrictions were in place.

“Worker lives are being put into danger because of inaction by the federal government,” Hussan said.

Marielle Hossack, press secretary for Employment and Workforce Development  Minister Carla Qualtrough, said all employees coming to Canada to help secure our country’s food supply deserve a safe working and living environment. She said employers have an an important role to play in helping prevent the introduction and spread of COVID-19.

“Our government has provided guidance to employers of temporary foreign workers to ensure they meet public health requirements regarding accommodations, hygiene and working conditions,” she said in an emailed statement to iPolitics. “We continue to engage with key stakeholders to ensure this program supports the Canadian economy and protects the health and safety of Canadians and workers.”

Currie urged that farmers are willing to do “whatever is necessary” to maintain the foreign worker’s program, noting that 16,000 agriculture jobs went unfilled last year.

“It’s desperately needed because we just can’t get Canadians to fill those jobs,” he said. “We just want the public to know, there still are jobs available should they choose to work on a farm, but these foreign workers are key to food production in Canada.”

Source: Federal guidelines for temporary foreign workers aren’t enforceable, says advocate