Business

Food producers worry if supply chain can handle COVID-19 without migrant workers

Canada's top grocers say they are able to keep up with demand amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but some food producers are expressing concern over the impact the border restrictions could have on Canada's agricultural food production.

Border restrictions could prevent 50,000 migrant workers from coming into Canada

New border restrictions amid the COVID-19 outbreak have food producers wondering about the approximately 50,000 migrant workers Canadian farms depend on annually. (Jason Kryk/The Canadian Press)

While the country's top grocers assure Canadians they'll be able to keep up with demand amid the COVID-19 outbreak, food producers are expressing concern over the impact border restrictions could have on Canada's agricultural food production.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced border restrictions for travellers who are not citizens, permanent residents or Americans, with a few exceptions for diplomats, air crew and their immediate families.

The government says it's taking this bold measure in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19, which has reached most of Canada.

But Trudeau did not indicate when Canada would be opening its borders again, leaving producers wondering about the approximately 50,000 migrant workers Canadian farms depend on annually.

"If our borders are closed for a short period of time, even to the migrant workers, there will be trouble getting the crops in for the season," said Steve Bamford, president of Toronto Wholesale Produce Association.

Bamford himself is waiting for migrant workers to arrive on the farms that he owns. He said running his operation without migrant workers would be difficult because they're skilled and have been returning for the past 20 years.

'A big food security issue'

Bamford said there wouldn't be enough time to teach a general labourer the same skills in the weeks left before work on this year's crops.

"It's a huge impact for our growers — not just Ontario, but nationwide. There is no way that we would be able to farm without our migrant workers. I can't put it any clearer than that," said Bamford. "We will run into a big food security issue if that happens."

Steve Bamford, president of the Toronto Wholesale Produce Association, said if there's any interruption to getting migrant workers to Canada, 'there will be trouble getting the crops in for the season.' (Skype)

Brett Schuyler, part-owner of family-run Schuyler Farms in Simcoe, Ont., echoed the concern.

"If something happened that we couldn't get workers up for the next year, it's not a good thing for Canadian agriculture," said Schuyler. "So I'm not excited for plan B."

"The majority of our horticulture industry is reliant on migrant farm workers," said Schuyler.

The migrant workers predominantly come from Mexico and the Caribbean, according to Schuyler, and with the warmer weather on its way, there will soon be need for them.

On Monday, the federal government told CBC News it wouldn't be able to answer questions related to migrant workers.

'The majority of our horticulture industry is reliant on migrant farm workers," said Brett Schuyler, part-owner of family-run Schuyler Farms in Simcoe, Ont. (Skype)

Schuyler said he hopes "that at the federal level they understand, and I'm sure through our lobby groups ... the importance of farm labour and keeping our farms viable as they're looking at all the different variables to consider in these decisions."

Officials discourage 'panic buying'

While uncertainty lingers, Canadians are stocking up. Over the past few days, politicians have been urging people not to rush to stores and hoard groceries. 

On Monday, Health Minister Patty Hajdu told Canadians to not buy more than what's needed for two weeks. But that hasn't curbed erratic shopping behaviour at Canadian grocery stores.

"I've been saddened by media reports of panic buying in Canada. Have enough supplies for a possible 14-day self-isolation, but think of your neighbours and only buy what you need. Be kind to one another," Hajdu tweeted.

The Retail Council of Canada (RCC), which describes itself as the "voice of retail" representing over 45,000 businesses, told CBC News that Canada does not have a product shortage.

"There is no reason for residents to panic-buy and stockpile," said the RCC in an email to CBC on Monday. "It is just that with the bulk-buying, retailers are having a hard time re-stocking shelves with the products in their warehouses."

The RCC said there are action plans to ensure essential products move across borders.

"While some products may take longer to re-stock than normal, Canadians can be assured that retailers are working closely with all levels of government and health authorities to ensure product is available and people are safe," said the RCC. 

On Monday, Trudeau said the border restrictions won't apply to "trade or business."

"We will continue to ensure that Canada can continue to receive important goods," Trudeau said from outside his home in Ottawa, where he remains in self-isolation, though he has not tested positive for the coronavirus.

'We are in good shape'

Canada's top grocers say they're prepared. 

In a letter to customers Monday, Loblaw Executive Chairman Galen Weston said not to worry. 

"We are not running out of food or essential supplies. Our supply chain and store teams are responding to the spikes in volume and quickly getting the most important items back on the shelf," read the letter. 

"Volumes are already normalizing somewhat, and we are catching up. There are a few items, like hand sanitizer, that may take longer to get back, but otherwise we are in good shape."

Weston also addressed the concern that some retailers are price gouging amid the outbreak. 

"We will not raise a single price on any item to take advantage of COVID-19."

Walmart Canada mirrored that message, telling customers that they're doing their best to stock their stores, including online, as quickly as possible.

"There is a very high demand for pickup and delivery services and our associates and partners are working hard to fulfill every order. We are communicating with customers about the status of their orders because there is a lot of pressure on the system," read a statement signed by President and CEO Haio Barbeito.

Customers stand in line to place an order at Nosso Talho butcher shop and grocery store in Toronto, where sales are up by 400 per cent, according to its manager. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

Smaller grocers say they're prepared, too. 

Robert Lima, who manages a small Toronto butcher and grocery shop, said he's never seen meat fly off of the shelves as fast as it has in the past three days. 

With sales up 400 per cent at his store, Nosso Talho, Lima said it's been a struggle to keep the shelves stocked.

He's not worried, and is advising others to follow suit.

"Calm down, we're not going to run out of meat," said Lima. "Just buy what you need, come back another day. Don't panic." 

Lima said he's not concerned about the supply chain. 

"I was speaking with my suppliers, I have a certain degree of confidence that there's nothing to worry about," said Lima. "I'm confident that we can get product in every single day, and we have been able to keep up with the demand system."

"It's just [having] the manpower to process the material and bring it out is what's difficult," he said.

About the Author

Laura Clementson is a journalist with CBC News. She can be reached at laura.clementson@cbc.ca. Follow Laura on Twitter @LauraClementson.

With files from Katie Nicholson, Joseph Loiero and Chelsea Gomez