Time to copy Canada - again - The Packer

Time to copy Canada - again

11/14/2013 11:31:00 AM
Tom Karst

Tom KarstCanada’s way of administering its Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program — or rather the government’s way of not administering it — should be Xeroxed by the U.S.

This would be a continuation of a fine tradition in which both countries are known to rip off the best (and worst) ideas from each other. If the U.S. has a new food safety law, then Canada needs to follow suit. If the U.S. has the PACA trust for produce sellers, Canada better get on it. If Canada has government health care, then my Lord the U.S. is hot on the trail. If Canada invented the snowblower, then the U.S. will market a Chinese-made version for every garage in upstate New York.

I was speaking recently with Ken Forth, president of the nonprofit, farmer-owned organization Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.) and a Lynden, Ont. broccoli grower. That farmer-run organization administers Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program for farms in Ontario and Atlantic Canada provinces. The group processes paperwork necessary, at a cost of only $38 per guest worker, to bring in laborers from Mexico and Caribbean countries to work Ontario’s farms.

Forth made it clear the that F.A.R.M.S. does not have a say in the approval of requests for workers by growers - those decisions come from the government of Canada. Once the government gives him approval to bring in foreign workers — called a labor market opinion — F.A.R.M.S. processes the orders with government authorities in Mexico and Caribbean countries and arranges travel for the workers.

The program started in 1966 as a pilot program with about 260 workers. In a 1985 cost-cutting move, Canada’s government outsourced the administration of the program to industry. The thing that has made the guest worker program a popular option for farmers in Canada was that there was no other option, Forth said.

“We developed this to work, and there is no question that we worked with the government to make this thing happen over the years, little by little, to work the way we needed it to work,” he said. “That’s all we had.”

Movement of migrant farm workers to Canada from Mexico doesn’t happen because the immense U.S. labor market. “A worker coming over from Mexico is not going to walk to Canada when he can get a job very close to where he is,” he said. The U.S. also has a weather advantage in California, the U.S. southwest and the U.S. southeast, where agricultural jobs fill much of the calendar year. “A lot of our jobs evaporate because of the season,” he said.

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