Thursday, November 28, 2013

Defending seasonal farm worker program

Farmers who hire offshore seasonal workers have issued a news release saying they need the program to continue in business.

Without the assurance of workers, Ken Forth, president of Farm Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS) says farmers would not invest and rural economies would suffer.

This year farmers approximately 15,000 seasonal workers from Mexico and the Caribbean, the news release says.
Under the federal government’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), people from Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad/Tobago and the Eastern Caribbean States are able to work in Ontario for a maximum of eight months and are guaranteed no less than 240 hours of work. The average length of stay is 20 weeks.
“These workers inject a significant amount of money directly into the local economy, buying consumer goods for their families back home from local businesses, as well as groceries, clothing and other items for themselves while they are working here,” said Forth.
Hold on! Any workers, no matter where they come from, would have to be paid at least as much as those coming in under SAWP and would contribute to the local economy.
“The seasonal worker program also supports Ontario’s agricultural industry and economy by enabling farm operations to remain viable in the face of a critical shortage of suitable and available Canadian workers,” the news release says.
Shortage?  What shortage?  This year we’re informed by the news media that Ontario had a relatively high unemployment rate, especially among students and recent immigrants and refugees.
These unskilled workers are precisely what farmers are hiring through the offshore program.
“Knowing a reliable source of seasonal workers exists allows farmers to plan for the future, invest in their operations and continue a livelihood that has sometimes been shared by their families for generations,” says Forth.

So if farmers need these workers, what, if anything, have they done to line them up in Canada?

“Without SAWP, some operations would be forced to stop growing fruits and vegetables altogether, or move into less labour-intensive crops,” the news release said.

Really? Are these farmers so lacking in ingenuity that they would not find a way to continue in business?

What I see is a program that brings a workforce into the province that is treated like slaves.

They live in housing provided by the farmers who then expect them to work from sunup to sundown.

The imported workers have nowhere else to go. They are tied to the farmer who hired them. They are like slaves.

I have worked with refugees and immigrants in the Kitchener-Waterloo area and one year knew that there were at least 30 of them who were farmers in their home country and wanted farm work. But they did not own cars, nor did they have driver’s licences.

I suggested to a farmer that they could be picked up at a central Kitchener location to be taken to the farm and returned in the evening. He said that would be far too much hassle compared with the offshore workers he had readily available through SAWP.

So many of those refugees worked as volunteers on Habitat for Humanity build project in Kitchener that summer. And we taxpayers supported them on welfare.

Frankly, at 15,000 workers per year, I think the SAWP is out of hand.  More effort ought to go into recruiting from the ranks of recent immigrants, refugees and students living in Ontario.