Ottawa will allow temporary foreign workers, international students into Canada

The federal government confirmed Friday that temporary foreign workers, foreigners with work visas and international students will be able to enter the country despite the travel ban but acknowledged there may still be some confusion at the border.

Deputy PM confirmed Friday people with work or student visas will be allowed into Canada despite travel ban

Only about 3,000 of the 16,000 temporary foreign workers needed to work on Quebec farms in 2020 have arrived so far. The federal government said anyone with a work visa will be allowed to enter Canada, providing the 14-day self-isolation rule is respected. (Emilie Richard/Radio-Canada)

EDITORIAL UPDATE: The federal government confirmed on Friday, March 20, that temporary foreign workers, foreigners with work visas and foreign students will not be affected by the travel ban imposed at the Canadian border. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said it may take some time before border agents and officials get all the information they need to implement the new rules.

In an acknowledgment of the essential role temporary foreign workers play in Canada's agricultural sector, the federal government has said it will allow them to continue entering Canada, despite new restrictions at the border to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"They'll be allowed to enter Canada ... after observing a 14-day period of self-isolation," said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair Wednesday.

Blair said the relaxed rule will apply to any temporary foreign worker who already has a visa.

On Friday, Blair confirmed this will also apply to foreigners who have a work visa in Canada, as well as to international students.

Blair said while the government continues to discourage any non-essential travel, those who already have visas to work or study in Canada "will be exempted from the restrictions we have put in place."

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said it is possible that people who are trying to return to Canada may be getting conflicting information, given the pace at which the government is making announcements.

"What that does mean? That people whose job it is to implement those details, it takes a bit of time for the precise information to get to everyone," Freeland said Friday.

"In ordinary times that is not how we operate,  but I'm confident that is what we need to do today," she said, asking Canadians to be patient.

Protocols not yet in place

Quebec agricultural producers rely on 16,000 foreign workers every year, particularly for fruit and vegetable production. 

Earlier Wednesday, Quebec's largest farmers' union, the UPA, said those migrant workers are crucial to the industry and asked Ottawa to make an exception and open the border.

"Their absence would jeopardize the entire production season," said the UPA's president, Marcel Groleau.

The UPA says the industry is willing to implement special measures to ensure workers who come to Quebec aren't carrying the coronavirus. (Reno Patry/CBC)

"The federal government made the right decision," he said late in the day, in a news release. "Keeping workers from coming into Canada would have been disastrous for the agro-food industry."

Quebec Premier François Legault said earlier Wednesday he had been working with his federal counterparts to ensure the industry didn't suffer from the new border rules.

"Our objective is to allow all foreign workers who already have a job here to enter the country," Legault said.

Roughly 3,000 out of the 16,000 workers needed for the 2020 season are already in Quebec, according to FERME, the organization that manages the recruitment of foreign agricultural workers in the province.

Most workers are recruited in Mexico and Central America. Guatemala has closed its borders and cancelled all air travel for at least two weeks.

Legault said if a company wants to charter a plane to bring workers to Canada, "the federal government would be willing to welcome them."

UPA President Marcel Groleau said the agricultural sector is ready to implement special measures to isolate foreign workers if there are allowed into the country. (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC)

"I want to reassure farmers we are currently working on this agreement to make sure their workers will be here this summer."

The logistical details of getting temporary workers here have still to be worked out. The UPA suggested that producers could take special measures, such as chartering flights for workers to keep them isolated from commercial passengers and testing workers for the coronavirus before they board their flight. 

In any event, FERME's director, Fernando Borja, said there isn't much time to waste since the planting season and greenhouse work begin in the coming weeks.

A total of 4,000 workers were expected to arrive in Quebec in April alone.

"If the workers can't come, agriculture as we know it will be very different," said Borja.

Impact on supermarket prices

Groleau acknowledged that many local workers will be unemployed due to the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, and he said people who do need a job should contact their local agricultural employment centre.

But he said the demand for workers cannot be completely met by locals. Temporary foreign workers generally return to Quebec each spring and are already trained.  

Around 1,200 foreign workers were needed in Eastern Quebec to work in transformation plants. (Radio-Canada)

Jocelyn St-Denis, the executive director of the Quebec Produce Growers' Association, said farmers would prefer it if newly arrived workers were allowed to do their jobs during the 14-day isolation period, while being kept at a distance from other farm workers.

"Somebody who is going to be all alone in a field planting — who is going to be all alone in the wilderness — can be isolated, and there's no risk," said St-Denis.

Quebec's fishing industry is also reliant on temporary foreign workers.

More than 1,200 foreign workers are expected in Eastern Quebec, according to Bill Sheehan, president of the Quebec Association of Fishing Industry.

Sheehan said the last thing the industry wants "is to bring people into our workplaces who could have the virus."

That's why companies are ready to respect any safety measures the government puts in place, he said.

With files from Radio-Canada's Martin Toulgoat and Première Heure

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