Army of Migrant Workers Power Niagara's Farms

September 4, 2015 News
Seasonal worker picking peaches at Tregunno Farms

Seasonal worker picking peaches at Tregunno Farms

Over decades of farming, the Troup family has grown to profoundly respect their seasonal workers.

And patriarch Len Troup pulls no punches on how important they are to their Lakelee Orchards operation.

“This is our backbone crew, we could not function without it,” said Troup, of migrant workers that have come through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

Every year since 1969, dozens of them have employed by the Lincoln fruit farm.

“It started because of the unreliability in obtaining local labour,” he said. “It’s since been refined, things have been added to it, and renegotiated over the years. It is a very good program for everybody, for us and the workers.

Troup calls his regular crew “experienced, reliable, dependable and they come back year after year,” with perhaps 100 employed at their facility, which is now finishing a peach harvest.

Troup adds his own farm employs more Canadians than offshore workers, but without the offshore component, no one would be working there.

“They are so very important to us, we appreciate and respect them,” he said.

About 16,000 overseas workers come to Ontario throughout the year, with 2,860 of them working this year on Niagara farms, orchards and greenhouses. They come from Mexico, Jamaica and the Caribbean islands and have to apply through their home country’s ministry of labour.

The SAWP, now almost a half-century in existence, is operated by the federal ministry of human resources in partnership with the ministry of citizenship and immigration. It also involves the governments of the country of origin of the workers.

Most of the region’s workers come from Mexico and Jamaica, with some stalwarts arriving here, seasonally and up to eight months maximum, to work for as long as 40 or more years.

They sign contracts that guarantee protections and benefits that Canadian workers receive, including WSIB, certain Employment Insurance benefits and provincial health care coverage.

Hourly wage rates are set by the feds, with that rate not less than the provincial minimum wage rate or the local prevailing rate paid to Canadians doing the same job, whichever is greatest.

Ultimately, they can earn five times more than they could in their own countries — or even much more than that — with that cash frequently supporting their families, providing education and helping to operate farms in home own countries.

“The fact is otherwise, you just just can’t get that labour,” said Ken Forth, the Hamilton president of the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS), which assists in the handling of seasonal workers for Ontario growers.

“It’s a seasonal job, Canadians aren’t looking for seasonal work,” Forth said, adding Canadians are hired, but not enough. “Canadians want … to work all year long.”

Forth said his program was put in place to remove some of the nightmares out of program’s logistics. “Our administration side and travel agency work hand-in-hand together to get these guys here when we need them all year long,” he said.

Among the nitty-gritty details are FARMS staff at airports who meet workers at every plane and help with immigration and even bussing to farm areas.

Forth adds the government has made the program as transparent as possible so it’s clear “every farmer has to appear on a national job bank, has to advertise someplace else … nobody applied for these jobs so these SAWP people are taking these jobs.

“This program … has always been a Canadian-first program,” he added. “If Canadians can do it, they get the work.”

Phil Tregunno, chair of the Ontario Tender Fruit Producers’ Marketing Board calls the program “invaluable.

“A lot of men that come up are farmers in their own country, so it works well for them in their off-season to earn a little income and help put the kids through school,” said Tregunno, who is also a fruit farmer in Niagara-on-the-Lake and employs the workers.

He said they are especially vital in Niagara, where tourism soaks up much of the available local seasonal workers.

“To get people out in the field to pick peaches can be quite tricky (otherwise),” he said. “To get a crop off you need a lot of people for a fairly short period of time, and through this program, that has worked out very well.”

Activists and people dealing with migrant far workers say not all is perfect with the program.

Top of the list are concerns over adequate medical and clinic treatment by workers who may fear a serious illness or injury could cost them a job.

“That program is a good program, it does help farmers here and the migrant workers as well,” said Jackie Barrett-Greene, chair of the Niagara Migrant Workers Interest Group.

“But there are glitches, and health care would be one,” Barrett-Green said.

While they are entitled to health care “the problem is there are so many barriers to accessing health care,” she said. Those include the hours they work, the need for Spanish translation services, transportation and fear of job loss.

To that end, in 2011 NWIG approached Quest Community Health Centre in St. Catharines and asked them to “fill the gap.”

The Local Health Integration Network, which funds health care in Niagara has also provided financial help.

It resulted in a Quest Sunday clinic every two weeks in Virgil for the workers from May to October, with volunteers trained to do translation and health care provided.

Barrett-Green said another clinic has also been set up in Lincoln by Quest and Southridge Community Church.

Stan Raper, national coordinator of the advocacy group Agriculture Workers Alliance, would like to see further changes to improve the program.

“One of the complaints we’ve had is basically the program has remained the same for 50 years,” said Raper, of an Alliance that also has an office in Virgil and is part of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

“We have been advocating and lobbying for some form of path to citizenship similar to the live-in nannies or caregiver program.”

Raper recounts an example of one farm worker who’s been in the program for 41 years and still has no Canadian citizenship.

“Even if the farm worker didn’t want to stay in Canada for the four-month off-season, having the ability to be a Canadian and Jamaican citizen reduces the pressure of a farmer naming (only certain) workers to come back,” he said.

When that happens with one employer “potentially you’ve lost your ability to come back and work in Canada.

“If that farmworker is not named back and he is a dual citizen, potentially he could return and look for a job with another employer.”

Raper said another issue are concerns about excessive weekly hours worked: “Yes they want to work as many hours as they can… but what is safe, what is humane?

“We have workers working more than 100 hours a week … you make mistakes when you’re really tired, and this is grueling, labour-intensive stopping labour.

“At some point, we need to address this.”