What does it mean for farmers when government staff read bad news about the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and the rest of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP)? Or when voters read such stories?
The link between media coverage and policy changes is not always clear. But there is no doubt that in the past, changes in program rules followed sustained negative news. Take, for example, the stories about Canadian employers such as McDonald’s and Royal Bank of Canada replacing existing Canadian workers with temporary foreign workers. The media uproar led to changes to the program in 2014 including stricter Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) requirements such as job postings.
The issue here is that media stories often attempt to lump agriculture in with all the other sectors using TFWP. The good news is that the public is prepared to view agriculture differently. This was evident during the period of the 2014 program changes. In May of that year, a government survey asked close to 2,000 Canadians about their views about the TFWP. While support for TFWP for all other sectors hovered in the range of 4.7 to 5.2 (out of 10), agriculture received a support level of 6.2.
This example highlights the importance of farming-specific communications efforts such as those led by the Canadian Horticultural Council, FARMS and other industry leaders. They are vital to correcting the record when it comes to the false (or over-generalizing) narrative in media stories. These communications efforts include regular media interviews, open letters to the editor, and also conversations with government officials to ensure they receive the facts about our international guest worker programs. They also include educational materials such as CHC’s Heartbeat video which was released earlier in 2019 to showcase the positive nature of these programs on Canadian farms using powerful personal stories of workers and farmers.
That said, when it comes to day-to-day conversations, growers are the best ambassadors to share the overwhelmingly positive relationship between our farming community and the international workers who voluntarily choose to come here, often returning to the same farm for decades.
Growers can keep the following eight points in mind for these conversations about SAWP/TFWP with friends, acquaintances, and even strangers:
- LOCAL WORKERS FIRST: We always try to hire locally first. In fact, every position filled by a SAWP/TFWP farm worker has at one point been advertised in local job banks. But with the lack of local workers for seasonal and rural jobs, we regularly rely on the SAWP and TFWP.
- PROTECTED BY LAW: Every SAWP/TFWP worker has a legal job contract signed by them and the employer. This protects the worker, giving them all the same rights and protections as local Canadian workers, including Employment Insurance.
- EQUAL WAGES FOR EQUAL WORK: Foreign workers are paid the same as Canadians doing the same job. There is no way around minimum wage, it’s a requirement of the SAWP/TFWP rules.
- BUILDING MORE THAN CANADA’S ECONOMY: More than $300 million of saved earnings are sent home by SAWP employees every year, more than 11 times Canada’s annual aid budget to developing regions such as Mexico and the Caribbean. Seasonal jobs provide workers the opportunity to send their kids to good schools, buy a home, and start their own family business.
- A GUARANTEED HOME: For SAWP, workers are guaranteed housing provided by their employer at no cost to the worker. In the rest of TFWP, employers have to ensure affordable housing is available and may charge modest rent amounts approved by Service Canada.
- housing is inspected every year by certified municipal or provincial health inspectors.
- HEALTH CARE BENEFITS FOR ALL: All SAWP/TFWP workers have mandated access to health care under public or private insurance. SAWP workers are covered by provincial coverage (e.g. OHIP in Ontario) from day one. In the rest of TFWP, where there is a waiting period before provincial coverage kicks in, employers are responsible for purchasing private coverage for the workers during this period.
- A PATHWAY TO IMMIGRATION: Immigration rules are set by the government. Not by farmers. That said, we are fully supportive of any pathway of immigration for workers that want one.
- ZERO TOLERANCE FOR BAD ACTORS: Non-compliant employers are fined, placed on probation, or excluded from the program in the future if they fail to meet the program’s very high standards.
Stefan Larrass is policy advisor, Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers’ Association.