'It's a complicated situation': Temporary foreign workers allowed into Canada, but there are hurdles

The federal government is allowing the temporary foreign worker program to go ahead this year with modifications to account for COVID-19, but there are still hurdles to getting the workers into the country. Some farmers and beekeepers are worried that their workers will arrive too late.

Farmers say they'd like to hire Canadians, but they rarely want the jobs and likely don't have the skills

Beth Connery, right, is the chief operating officer of Connery's Riverdale Farms Ltd. in Portage la Prairie, Man. She typically brings in 36 workers just for the asparagus harvest, but she's worried they won't arrive in time. (Connery's Riverdale Farms Ltd.)

The federal government has allowed the temporary foreign worker program to go ahead with modifications to account for COVID-19, but employers are experiencing hurdles getting workers into the country.

Some farmers and beekeepers are worried that their workers will arrive too late. 

Bill Termeer, owner of Moondance Honey near Sexsmith, Alta., brings about seven temporary foreign workers into Canada each year from the Philippines to help run his 5,000 honeybee colonies.

"It's very difficult for the guys to go travel around and get their paperwork," Termeer said. "They just don't have it. So I expect there will be a shortage of workers."

Workers usually arrive around the beginning of April, Termeer said, meaning the crews are already late. The workers need to quarantine for two weeks when they get into the country. 

Termeer said it is a struggle to hire locals to do the seasonal work. Albertans don't want to come back to the job year after year, he said.

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The Canadian Honey Council is looking at options to charter a plane from Nicaragua, at a cost between $130,000 and $230,000, to bring in about 160 beekeepers, said Rod Scarlett, the council's executive director.

The Canadian beekeepers would have to foot the bill. 

"All the airlines started to cut back on their services, so foreign workers couldn't catch flights out of their respective countries," Scarlett said. 

"Then, there were health protocols that had to be approved. And the government introduced quarantine protocols that had to be sent to other governments to get approved."

He said the process of getting work visas has stalled in some countries. 

"It's a complicated situation." 

An aerial shot of some of Connery's Riverdale Farms fields, a 242-hectare operation in Manitoba. (Connery's Riverdale Farms Ltd.)

Scarlett said Albertan beekeepers are trying to bring in about 350 workers right now. 

"Certainly, they will be looking at getting Canadians to go work with the bees, but with no skill and experience, it's a steep learning curve."

He said it would take two non-experienced workers and a supervisor to replace one experienced temporary foreign worker. Scarlett said it would be a "complicated and expensive endeavour."

Risks to replacing foreign workers

Canadian farmers bring in thousands of foreign workers every year to plant seeds and harvest crops. 

Manitoba vegetable and berry farmer Beth Connery, labour chair for the Canadian Horticultural Council, said between 60,000 and 70,000 foreign workers come in every year.  

She said there are risks to replacing the temporary foreign workers with Canadians. 

Farmers are tough buggers, but I've been hearing tears in their voice.- Alan Marritt, president of Vacation World in Calgary

"What happens if things go back to normal and then those people go back to their old jobs? And if we've got crops out in the field, how will they be harvested?"

Connery brings in between 55 and 60 workers for her 242-hectare farm in Portage la Prairie, Man. About 36 workers would come in for the asparagus harvest at the beginning of May. 

She said her farm has already overcome several hurdles in getting the workers into the country, and she's hoping to be able to get over the last few in time to harvest. But she said she's concerned for workers' safety and wants them to stay healthy. 

'They're desperate'

Alan Marritt, president of Vacation World in Calgary, has been in the business of arranging travel for temporary foreign workers for the last 37 years.

He said he's been able to get some people into the country, but it's been difficult. He had 106 people scheduled to fly in on April 8, but that was pushed until April 15 and 17. 

"They [farmers and beekeepers] are being as patient as they can be, but they're desperate," Marritt said. "They're looking at their whole year going down the drain."

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He said all the governments involved are doing their best to bring in workers and come up with protocols to keep everyone safe. 

But in the meantime, farmers have to wait. 

"Farmers are tough buggers, but I've been hearing tears in their voice."

A spokesperson for the federal department of Employment and Social Development said in an email that it is working alongside Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to process applications under the temporary foreign worker program. 

Employment and Social Development is working to lighten the "administrative burden" for employers, the statement said.

What happens if things go back to normal and then those people go back to their old jobs?- Beth Connery, COO of Connery's Riverdale Farms Ltd.

"No travellers including temporary foreign workers who present with COVID-19 symptoms are allowed to board international flights to Canada," department representative Isabelle Maheu said in a statement. 

As well, the travellers need to isolate for 14 days upon arrival. 

"Employers are required to pay workers during their 14 days of mandatory self-isolation following arrival."

Justin Laurence, spokesperson for Alberta's Agriculture and Forestry Department, said in an email that the department has asked the federal government to increase flexibility for farmers in the business risk management program. 

He added that the government has several financial aids for farmers, including $153 million in a disaster relief fund, and $74.7 million to help cover insurance claims and pay income support for workers. 

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