By TOM GODFREY
Some 16,800 farm workers who arrive in Ontario annually from the Caribbean and Mexico will not be affected by changes being made to the troubled Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP), officials say.
“They will not be affected,” said Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S). “We have lots of rules and there are many liaison officers who check on the workers.”
Forth’s group help make travel arrangements for the thousands of seasonal workers who arrive in Toronto, and are then dispatched to 1,400 southern Ontario farms that requested the help.
Employment Minister Jason Kenney last week announced changes to the TFWP that will bar employers from hiring foreign workers in regions where the unemployment rate is above six per cent.
The government is also placing a 10 per cent cap on the number of workers employers can hire on a work site by 2016.
Kenney was forced to address complaints following reports that the program was being abused in some regions by large firms who were using it for cheap labour instead of hiring Canadians.
Forth said the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) is a very successful component of the TFWP.
He pointed to two aircraft filled with workers that arrived from the Caribbean last week. One flight was from Jamaica.
This year some 6,000 Jamaican workers and 800 from Trinidad & Tobago will be among the 16,800 arriving to work in Ontario farms. Almost 9,000 of the workers are from Mexico.
“This year we are celebrating the 48th year of the program,” Forth told Share. “This is the world’s most successful program for connecting seasonal workers with agricultural workers.”
He said many workers have been returning to Canada for 20 or 30 years and some even have sons in the program.
“The program started as a pilot project in 1966 with 264 workers from Jamaica,” Forth said. “We had some farmers who went to Jamaica for holidays and saw the unemployment and thought they could use the labour up here.”
The SAWP program will link about 14,000 requests for seasonal workers with jobs at Ontario farms this growing season, he said.
“For decades, this program has provided Ontario farmers a steady source of reliable labour,” Forth said. “It gives the workers well-paying employment, benefits and educational opportunities not available at home.”
Most workers sign contracts with individual farmers for 22 weeks of work, during which time some can earn as much as $15,000. The contract provides them with the same protections and benefits as Canadian workers.
“Ontario farmers pay the highest farm worker wages in North America and face intense competition from low-wage competitors,” he said. “Without this program, many Ontario farmers simply couldn’t continue to grow fruits and vegetables.”
But Chris Ramsaroop, of Justica for Migrant Workers, said things are not so rosy for some of the foreign help.
Ramsaroop said his group receives more than 100 complaints from workers each year and claim the program is “fundamentally flawed”.
He said workers injured on the job and requiring long-term care have a hard time receiving proper help, because they are rushed home on the day their contract expires.
“We do have many people who fall through the cracks,” Ramsaroop said. “We don’t believe things have fundamentally changed in the last 48 years.”
He said workers should not be tied to one employer since many are often forced to keep quiet on safety or other issues due to threats of being sent home or them not being returned to Canada next season.