It was 2008, the first time Myron Martin came to Canada to work on a Niagara Region tender fruit farm. He’d done some farming in Jamaica, so joining the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) made sense for him – and he’s been returning to the same farm every year since then.
“This is the first farm, and I don’t find any fault with it, so that’s the reason that I’m here. As long as the boss is good to me, I’m still going to be here,” he says. “We just stayed on the farm (the first year of the pandemic) and didn’t go anywhere; the boss did some shopping for us, and we stayed safe. Now we’ve gotten our two shots already and it feels good.”
Travel restrictions introduced at the onset of the pandemic to curb the spread of COVID-19 have made it challenging for migrant farm workers to come to Canada over the last two years – and equally challenging for their employers in Ontario’s fruit and vegetable industry who rely heavily on international workers to grow and harvest their crops.
Many fruit and vegetable crops grown in Ontario lack the technologies that would allow growers to automate or mechanize growing or harvesting tasks. That means a lot of hand labour is still required, and although those jobs are readily available and promoted to local workers, few apply.
That’s where SAWP and the agricultural stream of the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program help farmers fill their labour gaps with international workers who are eager for the opportunities that a job in Canada can provide.
Through SAWP, workers from Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean have been getting jobs on Canadian fruit and vegetable farms for more than 50 years. Over 17,000 migrant farm workers come to Ontario annually through this program – and many are longtime participants, often returning to the same farm for years.
Critics of the longtime program suggest it lacks oversight, and that workers are subjected to long hours with few, if any rights. That’s not the case for SAWP workers, say organizations who have spent decades working with migrant farm workers and their employers.
According to Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, which helps administer SAWP in Ontario, the governments of the workers’ home countries employ liaison officers in Canada who support the workers while they are here with things like non-workplace medical care, compensation and personal issues.
SAWP work agreements are protected by regulations set by both governments and signed by the worker and the employer. As well, SAWP workers have the same rights and privileges as Canadian workers, including minimum wage, health care, workplace insurance coverage and access to employment insurance as soon as they arrive.
The Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA) says how much farmers and their employees must work at a given time depends on nature: the weather and where crops 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, which can make for workdays that are very different than a typical nine-to-five job,” says OFVGA policy advisor Stefan Larrass. “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 produce has spoiled and can no longer be consumed.”
Baldeo Gopaul has been coming to Canada from Trinidad & Tobago for more than 20 years. A desire to travel and learn new things attracted him to SAWP where some of his friends had already landed jobs. For the last 12 years, he’s been working on the same vegetable farm in the Holland Marsh.
“What do I like about Canada? From the places I’ve been, I like everything. The people are nice, the agriculture is great, and I get to try different equipment and new technology,” Gopaul says. “I do a little bit of everything; I really love my job.”
To learn more about migrant farm workers like Myron and Baldeo and their experiences on Ontario fruit and vegetable farms, visit morethanamigrantworker.ca.