Pandemic underscores value of migrant workers and innovation

·5 min read

Call it a case for smarter farming, with more year-round production.

Think robotics and artificial intelligence, but don't lose sight of the small army of offshore workers that do much of the heavy lifting.

From worker shortages and processing backlogs, to hundreds of outbreaks of COVID-19 on farms, the pandemic exposed Canadian agriculture's reliance on manual labour.

Agriculture accounts for 2.3 million jobs and contributes about $140 billion to gross domestic product. Canada also relies on about 60,000 offshore labourers each year to work in fields, orchards, barns and greenhouses.

About 20,000 of those workers head to Ontario, while others go to Quebec and British Columbia.

Last year, as the pandemic struck, many farmers had trouble getting the foreign help they needed.

Some producers didn't plant crops and processing plants closed.

COVID-19 outbreaks last spring and summer also trained a spotlight on the living conditions many migrant workers face in Canada.

In Ontario, about1,800 workers were infected with COVID-19 and three died.

Early last spring, an outbreak at a Cargill meat processing plant in High River, Alta., was linked to about 1,500 infections. Three employees died.

The federal government does not track COVID-19 cases among farm workers, or the number of outbreaks on farms, and many provinces don’t break down workplace outbreaks by sector, making it difficult to get a grip on the chaos the pandemic caused. But Ontario has reported at least 31 COVID-19 outbreaks on farms and another 19 in food processing centres so far this year.

Peter Gubbels, who grows watermelon and squash near London, said he's “hoping and praying” his 13 migrant workers, due to arrive April 20, will make it into the country on time. Last year, he hired high school students to help get his seeds planted.

“Last year was such a nightmare,” said Gubbels, adding the industry needs to streamline how foreign workers are brought into Canada.

“What happens, generally, is everyone interprets rules differently and there’s a lot of confusion,” he said. “It should be one standard.”

Last season, Gubbels’ farm was inspected within weeks by local public health, the provincial labour ministry and Service Canada.

For consumers, a post-pandemic emphasis on buying local would not only keep costs lower but also be a boon for Canadian farmers, he added.

“I really believe that our culture is going to be closer to home,” Gubbels said. “That’s the way it’s going to have to work.”

Canada needs to focus on producing food with more emphasis on technology and robotics, said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"It’s about moving the needle on production and growing crops more efficiently all year round," Charlebois said. "“With COVID, there’s this recognition that perhaps artificial intelligence can help, robotics as well.

"Robots are very mechanical, repetitive. You can rely on them 24 hours a day. They don’t get sick. They show up to work.”

The federal government invested about $50 million to support agri-food automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, and $30 million in an innovation fund.

Another $58 million was invested last year to enhance farm and agri-food safety.

“Advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and automation present opportunities to achieve an even greater level of sustainable production and ensure the sector’s long-term competitiveness,” Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said in an email.

As for temporary foreign workers, Charlebois said Canada needs more.

"Most provinces have tried to recruit Canadians to work on farms, but it’s very difficult," he said. "We’re not hard-wired to work on farms anymore. It's hard work from sunrise to sunset.”

About 16,000 agriculture jobs go unfilled every year, according to Keith Currie, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. A greater shift to automation would also increase demand for jobs in other fields, like writing software for robotics or servicing machines, he said.

Currie said the pandemic highlights business risks in agriculture, adding supports like stability insurance need to be enhanced. He also cited increased safety precautions on farms as a major shift, adding there are “a lot of misconceptions” about how migrant workers are treated on farms.

“They are looked after very well,” he said.

Some disagree, saying migrants often experience “inhumane and substandard” living conditions in bunkhouses.

“The most fundamental thing the pandemic has shown is that migrant workers don’t have the power to protect themselves as a result of their lack of permanent immigration status,” said Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

He said granting migrant workers permanent resident status would improve access to health care and labour protections, including the ability to leave unsafe workplaces because most foreign worker permits are tied to a single employer.

Near Simcoe, farmer Brett Schuyler said the pandemic has been a "roller-coaster" of uncertainty.

Schuyler, who grows apples, cherries and grain, did not plant asparagus last spring because of delays getting migrant workers to Canada. He employs about 200 seasonal workers, many from Trinidad and Tobago.

About 100 of his workers were stranded in Canada last fall over travel disputes with their home nation.

“A big thing I’ve seen from this is we have to help get temporary foreign workers a voice,” Schuyler said. “We’ve got to make changes so that workers can stand up for their rights.”

He said the country is “spoiled” to have a reliable offshore workforce, but that program should become a gateway for immigration to strengthen that labour supply.

“We’ve got to continue to make it better so that we don’t run the risk of losing it because we’re done without it,” Schuyler said.

Despite the pandemic, Canadian agriculture boomed in 2020, with food exports up about 10 per cent from 2019.

Schuyler sees hope on the horizon with his migrant workers beginning to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I’m very genuinely ready to get on with life,” he said. “We have an awesome thing going on at the farm, but I really miss being able to take my kids here, walking around, visiting the bunkhouses and letting everybody interact. Those are pretty special memories.”

Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press