Study Points to Impact of Foreign Workers in Canada

November 10, 2015 News
Seasonal worker picking peaches at Tregunno Farms

Seasonal worker picking peaches at Tregunno Farms

A seasonal foreign workers program is crucial to a thriving provincial horticultural industry.

That’s the blunt conclusion in a recently-released study by Guelph-based Agri-food Economic Systems on the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

It says that program, which uses seasonal workers from Mexico and the Caribbean, supports an annual $5.4 billion in economic activity and 34,280 full-time jobs in Ontario.

Ken Forth, president of the program administrator Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, said the study reaffirms what a similar research project highlighted 15 years ago.

“Those jobs created are happening within agriculture and on the edge of agriculture,” he said. “And it’s as a result of these seasonal workers being here.”

The SAWP was established in 1966 in response to a serious shortage of available domestic agricultural workers.

It connects Ontario farmers with supplementary seasonal labour from Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad/Tobago and eastern Caribbean states.

As a Canadians-first program, that farm labour can be hired from participating countries only if agricultural operators can’t find domestic workers to. About 16,000 overseas workers come to Ontario throughout the year, with many working on Niagara farms, orchards and greenhouses.

In 2015, that amounted to 3,123 of the workers coming to the Niagara horticultural sector through that program.

The SAWP 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 to fill vacancies.

The report by Agri-food Economic Systems — an independent economic research organization — says about 1,450 farms in the province benefitted from the program this year, hiring nearly 17,000 seasonal workers.

A report release adds that chronic labour shortages continue to challenge the agricultural sector.

This is due to aging demographics, competition with other sectors and fewer numbers of young people pursuing careers in farming. As a result, demand for workers under SAWP is “projected to remain steady.”

Forth said the message needs to be clear that these workers are not taking horticultural jobs that would otherwise go to Canadians. “And we want to show what these jobs actually mean in our economy,” he said.

“There’s no question if there were no seasonal workers of any kind … the horticultural industry would become a cottage industry,” he said. “It would’t be any kind of business at all.

“And most of those 34,000 Canadian jobs would be lost, too because we wouldn’t need (as many) machine operators or truck drivers and everything else we use to harvest, plant and deliver crops.”

Forth said in that scenario, “farms would become very small, with production going to the U.S. and Mexico.”

“This is not new stuff,” he said. “The program has risen to become a critical mass of people we need in our farms.”

“It’s a success story for everybody, not to mention the fact we need to produce some of our own food.”