Thousands of Mexican workers needed for Canada's growing season will have their temperature taken before being allowed to enter the country, in light of the swine flu outbreak, Canadian officials indicated Monday.

It's mandatory for seasonal or temporary workers from Mexico to undergo a physical examination before travelling to Canada, but now "they will have to have two doctors take their temperature, and all of this has to be done before they leave Mexico," Jason Kenney, minister of citizenship and immigration, said during Question Period Monday afternoon.

Kenney's comments in Parliament echoed earlier assertions from the Canadian government concerning safety precautions for Mexican migrant farm workers.

MDs to take workers' temperature

The minister of state for agriculture, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, said Monday that Canada has assigned two physicians to assist in the process of delivering permits to temporary farm workers and "to make sure that people who enter Canada don't have the disease.

"It's in that context that we will move forward, always with the objective of protecting public health," Blackburn said Monday at a French news conference in Quebec.

Authorities are closely monitoring the outbreak's evolution, while keeping things "in perspective," he added. "What is important for us is to ensure public health. At the same time, agricultural workers are important."

But the government has not ruled out the possibility of barring workers if the outbreak spreads, said Quebec Agriculture Minister Laurent Lessard.

"If the risk level evolves, necessarily, we will have to take appropriate measures," said Lessard, who accompanied Blackburn at the news conference.

Quebec farms depend on Mexican workers

Migrant farm workers from Mexico provide key labour to Canada's farming industry — especially in Quebec and Manitoba.

The Quebec industry was concerned workers may be blocked at the border given the risks of exposure and contamination in light of the swine flu outbreak.

More than 15,000 farm workers from Central America and the Caribbean eligible to work on Canadian fruit, vegetable and dairy farms are due here in the next few weeks, in time for the growing season's busiest period.

If they are delayed or eventually prevented from coming in, Quebec farms may be in trouble, said René Mantha, director of recruiting company FERME (Fondation des entreprises en recrutement de main-d'oeuvre étrangère).

"Without them, it's impossible to have the same production," Mantha said.

There has been a chronic shortage of agriculture help since at least 1974, since Canadians first started turning away from rural minimum-wage seasonal work, he explained.

Workers from Central America have consistently stepped in to fill that void, with the majority coming from Mexico. "We can recruit from other countries, but it could take months, and it would be too late," Mantha said.

"We already recruit workers from Guatemala, but we can't ask the Guatemalans to replace the Mexicans."

Hundreds of Mexican workers are already in Quebec, after arriving in January to work in flower and vegetable greenhouses. Mantha said they are very concerned about the flu reports, and many are speaking to their families at home every day for updates.

Recruiters ponder a contingency plan

Given the wave of layoffs across Canada, there may be an opportunity for the unemployed, Mantha suggested. "It's always the first option, to recruit Canadians before foreign workers," he said. Canadians are "already welcome on all … farms. If  they are searching for temporary jobs, yes, we have jobs for them."

Farm workers earn between $9 per hour — to work on a vegetable farm — to $11.78 per hour on dairy farms, he said.


  • Jean-Pierre Blackburn is the federal minister of state for agriculture, not the federal minister of agriculture, as was originally reported.
    Apr 27, 2009 4:40 PM ET