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Resources available to help fill COVID-19 labour gap

  • 3.5 min read

COVID-19 has left many producers across the country – especially those who bring in temporary foreign workers - scrambling for farm labour.

Due to travel restrictions and the need for a 14-day quarantine upon arrival, the struggle is even more hectic.

Dusty Zamecnik of Ontario’s EZ Grow Farms calls temporary foreign workers (TFWs) integral to domestic food security and maintaining Canada’s respected food brand internationally.

Nationally, approximately 60,000 temporary foreign workers arrive each year to help in the agricultural sector. Earlier this month, the federal government announced $50 million to help farmers and food processors put in place the mandatory 14-day isolation period required of all workers arriving from out of the country.

Zamecnik says without normal staffing levels during narrow harvest windows of spring crops, farmers will be forced to leave crops in fields.

“People that need fresh produce - to leave it in the field because they just simply can’t get to it - is a very harsh reality,” he says.

With other countries, including the United States, dealing with similar labour shortages, that means food prices are going to go up, Zamecnik predicts.

Filling gap locally

Unsure if, or when, temporary foreign workers will arrive to work on Canadian farms, some producers are turning to local labour for help.

Beth Connery, COO of Connery's Riverdale Farms in Manitoba expects some TFWs arriving any day now, but nowhere near the 60 she usually brings in. Seven Jamaican workers have arrived and are currently amid their 14-day quarantine and she expects approximately nine more to arrive soon. Others may be coming from Mexico, however, due to travel restrictions in that country, she is unsure if, or when, they’ll be able to travel.

That element of unknown means Connery is looking locally to fill employment gaps.

Typically, Connery would not consider the province’s summer youth jobs option because of its mid-May to late August time constraints. This year, the program could solve some short-term problems like planting and early harvest but would leave her with another one in the fall.

“We need a full crew right through to the end of October,” Connery says.

Another issue that arises is local labour coming in and out of the farm, increasing the risk of COVID-19 entering the farm, and meaning more planning and risk management, Connery says. Farm safety can also be an issue, although many groups are providing easily accessible information, such as these daily YouTube videos from Progressive Agriculture Safety Days, or the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association.

Zamecnik notes that the option for locals to work on farms has always existed, and farms like his would prefer hiring local people to avoid paying for airfare, bus transport and housing of TFWs.

As it stands, EZ Grow only has about a third of its usual foreign workforce, requiring longer hours from the people they do have to help make up the deficit.

In Quebec, the Union des producteurs agricoles (UPA) has started a recruitment program for local workers (French only), which offers a $100 a week bonus.

The UPA also has a job board (French only) matching Quebec farmers and workers. The agri-food sector has a job board (French only) as well, while agriculture workers and employers can match-up at this website (French only). 

At the national level, employers seeking workers can post on Job Bank Canada, Canadian Agricultural Human Resources AgriJobs, Careers in Food and AgCareers.

A website for jobs in agriculture and food is up and running in Ontario, while in Nova Scotia, the federation of agriculture has also started a job board . An industry-wide job matching website has also been created for Atlantic Canada.

Bottom line

Farmers are recruiting locally and adding extra hours for the employees they do have, due to lack of temporary foreign workers because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Safety associations have created some resources to help keep new workers safe. For farmers and agri-food operators searching for workers, job boards have started across the country for the agriculture and agri-food sector.

Article by: Richard Kamchen