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Ontario farmers say foreign workers exemption for COVID-19 restrictions is in the works

Groups that represent Ontario farmers say they're working with the federal government to get an exemption to COVID-19 entry restrictions that would allow temporary foreign farm workers to safely enter Canada in time for the growing season.

Agreement announced Monday doesn't apply to crucial SWAP program, OFA president says

About 60,000 seasonal farm workers come to Canada each year. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Groups that represent Ontario farmers say they're working with the federal government to get an exemption to new COVID-19 entry restrictions so that temporary foreign workers will be allowed to enter the country safely in time for the start of growing season. 

As the government announced the Canada-U.S. border shutdown to non-essential travel, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said temporary foreign workers would be able to enter the country if they self-isolate for 14 days. 

But in learning more details about the agreement this week, Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Keith Currie said the exemption only applies to temporary workers who enter from the United States. The bulk of temporary foreign workers on Ontario farms come through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SWAP) program.

"There's been some confusion around this," said Currie. "In our conversations with the federal government, they are very keen and eager to find a solution to allowing temporary foreign workers to be able to come into the country, because they're very important."

A spokesperson for Blair would only say Thursday that details around allowing foreign workers in are being worked out and will be announced soon. 

What's clear is that seasonal foreign workers play a crucial role in getting Ontario produce to market.

Ontario employs up to 20,000 migrant workers a year to perform farm work throughout the growing season. The number nationwide is close to 60,000. 

Under the SWAP program, those workers come to Canada from Mexico and Caribbean countries through an agreement between the Canadian government and the countries that supply workers. Currie said the discussions, which involve the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and other stakeholders, are focused on ironing out details about bringing foreign workers into the country while following necessary health precautions.

"There are a lot of moving parts to this and we're hoping to find a resolution sooner rather than later," said Currie. "There are people in that area getting ready now for the planting season."

Industry encouraged by talks

The Ontario Fruit Growers Association issued a statement Thursday, saying they're encouraged by the talks and are hopeful the government will find a way to allow foreign seasonal workers to get to Ontario farms before the growing season is disrupted.

"Without the support of these workers, domestic food production will be impossible or significantly limited," the statement says. 

As CBC News reported Tuesday, asparagus farmers in particular are facing a pressing deadline. Asparagus is typically harvested in May and growers say they need workers on site by early April for prep work and training. 

Chris Ramsaroop, of the group Justice for Migrant Workers, called on both levels of government to ensure that if any workers are brought to Canada to work, they have access to full healthcare should they fall ill, and Employment Insurance if their jobs end suddenly.

About the Author

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.

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