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  Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program: Setting the record straight on misconceptions

By Candice Vetter - AgriNews Staff Writer

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  • LYNDEN -- In a recent media release, regarding the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Programs (SAWP), the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS) addressed what it calls misperceptions and inaccurate generalizations about both SAWP and Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

    The release described SAWP as a model to governments and agricultural organizations around the world. About 18,000 seasonal workers provide Ontario fruit and vegetable growers with a vital source of supplementary labour. There are a total of about 30,000 seasonal ag workers in all of Canada which do specialized and/or essential jobs.

    "Without seasonal agricultural workers there would not be an industry left," said president Ken Forth, who raises vegetables near Hamilton. "We would be back to a cottage industry, which would not be sustainable. You can't grow stuff if you haven't got people to pick it."

    The program was created in 1966 to help farmers respond to a shortage of agricultural labour and the program continues to serve the same role today, says the FARMS media release.

    "There's a lot of criticism of seasonals, but it's based on lack of knowledge and politicians don't get it," said Forth in a telephone interview. He expressed frustration with the way politicians react to opinions from persons, often urbanites, who claim seasonal workers take jobs from Canadians and call for increasing restrictions. "SAWP is a Canadians-first program, and years ago we would have had a few Canadian seasonal workers, but now the baby boomers are too old to be out in fields picking tomatoes."

    Not only does the 51-year-old program benefit farmers and Canada's economy as a whole, but also it gives the seasonal workers well-paying employment, benefits and educational opportunities not available to them at home. About 60 per cent of foreign farm labourers come from Mexico and 40 per cent from Caribbean countries. Most of them work about 22 weeks annually.

    Forth describes the situation with some of his own workers. "I've got one guy who's been working for me for 32 years. He has a big family, and he can afford to go home and give his kids university degrees." Forth says the Canadian government should be taking some credit for improving prospects for Mexican and Caribbean children. "If you start educating their kids, you're helping people in third world countries, helping more than an aid package does." He points out that if the average Mexican or Caribbean family has five people per family, and there are almost 40,000 foreign workers who can educate their children, that's 200,000 people positively affected and taking themselves out of poverty. He emphasized "themselves," and then continued the point. "That's what people don't appreciate," he says. "Canada is making decisions about foreigners, about Mexico and some Caribbean countries, about those people, and here we are helping them, without hurting the government's budgets at all."

    Seasonal ag workers also help maintain farming and rural communities, as most domestic farms which produce fruits and vegetables which lost their labourers would have to switch over to large-scale grain crops , which reduces the number of small farmers, which in turn hollows out communities, especially if big international hedge fund companies start buying land, which has been a recent trend. If grain/oilseed/pulse cash cropping had to take over from vegetable and market garden farming due to lack of labour, the result would include loss of homes in these areas, loss of people in communities, which in turn leads to school closures, business closures, library closures, etc., which are all problems which already beset rural areas.

    Also, for those who complain that seasonal workers take away jobs, it can be noted that grains are mostly grown for export. "Without seasonal workers we can't eat our own fresh food," said Forth. That would not only be a problem for both country and city dwellers who want local produce, but would also eliminate thousands of spin-off jobs. "There are at least 30,000 Canadian full-time jobs that happen because the SAWP is in place, and it raises our GDP (gross domestic product) significantly."

    In spite of all the apparent usefulness of the program, it is becoming increasingly hard to access, says Forth, largely due to bureaucracy. He is currently in a position where, if every government agency he had to deal with decided to audit him, he would be looking at 18 audits.

    He also pointed out that seasonal workers are covered by Canadian and provincial labour laws, just like any other employees. The FARMS media release says it is a myth that labourers hired through SAWP undercut Canadian wages and don't have employment rights. "Seasonal workers hired through SAWP receive an hourly wage set by Employment and Social Development Canada. The hourly rate is not less than the provincial minimum wage rate or the local prevailing rate paid to Canadians doing the same job, whichever is greatest. Workers hired through SAWP fall under the same employment rights as Canadians receive, such as WSIB, certain Employment Insurance benefits, occupational health and safety and provincial health care (OHIP) during their term of employment. Seasonal housing -- provided at the expense of the employer -- must be inspected annually by local Ministry of Health officials. Water is tested to ensure it meets safety standards and the housing unit is inspected to ensure it meets provincial guidelines. Employers are required to maintain seasonal housing units in good repair."

    Most seasonal ag workers in Ontario are found and hired through FARMS. The farmer must first apply through Service Canada, then if approved to hire foreign workers for agricultural resource management services, can contact FARMS to arrange for workers. More information about the program can be found at www.farmsontario.ca.

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