Most fresh produce growers in Ontario’s fruit and vegetable industry hire offshore workers with the program, he said. “If the program evaporated, so would these crops, because there is not the labor here to do it,” he said. Canada’s aging population, combined with the fact that most people aren’t looking for seasonal employment, makes it hard for growers to attract farm workers, he said.
“There are (Canadians) that do work on our farms, that operate equipment, but not many and they are hard to find.” In Ontario, F.A.R.M.S. brings in about 15,500 foreign workers every year to work on Ontario’s farms and about 1,000 to Atlantic Canada provinces. The entire Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program accounts for 28,000 guest workers across all of Canada, Forth said. Wages are calculated according to minimum wage rates in the provinces or the national prevailing wage rate, whichever is higher. Housing and transportation are also provided by growers, with workers contributing to transportation expenses depending on the length of their stay.
The program works for both growers and guest workers, Forth said, with between 75% and 85% of workers coming back year after year. Forth said a worker at his farm was back for his 29th year this year.
“They become part of who we are,” he said.
After the first and second world wars, many people displaced in Europe came to Canada and worked on farms, Forth said. Now Canada’s immigration laws are strict and the influx of workers doesn’t match demand. Canada brings in more than 350,000 guest workers every year to help out in fields such as construction, meat packing, and even coffee shops, Forth said. “(Canada) actually brings in more nannies every year than farm workers,” he said. Forth said that those statistics show why guest farm workers are needed. “If (Canada) we can’t get (homegrown) construction workers, we are not going to get farm workers either,” he said.
The program has given farm workers the money they need to help their families, Forth said. “There are doctors and lawyers in place in Jamaica and other countries that were educated by their fathers working in this program and being able to pay for their education,” he said. “That’s the real success of this thing.”