Nova Scotia

McNeil throws wrench into plans to bring temporary foreign workers to N.S.

With airports in Atlantic Canada closed to international flights, where should temporary foreign workers quarantine?

Those workers can no longer fly into Atlantic Canada, leaving quarantine rules up in the air

Premier Stephen McNeil appears at a COVID-19 press briefing on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. (Communications Nova Scotia)

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil threw another complication at industries that rely on temporary foreign workers Wednesday, insisting those workers quarantine where they land in Canada before coming to the province's farms and fish plants.

It's more fallout from new federal air travel restrictions imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19 variants.

Canada is now funnelling all international flights into Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver.

"That quarantine should be taking place at the airport where they land or very near that airport where they land," McNeil told reporters Wednesday. "It is our position that quarantine should begin at the point of entry."

A farming industry representative said the premier's position contradicts assurances received from federal agriculture officials.

"That is news to us," said Allan Melvin, a Canning-area farmer who serves on the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture.

Allan Melvin owns Melvin Farms and serves on the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Melvin said the federation had been assured by officials in the office of Marie-Claude Bibeau, the federal minister of agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, that protocols put in place last year would carry over in 2021.

Those protocols allowed workers coming in on charter flights at Toronto, for example, to directly board a flight for Halifax and do their two-week quarantine at farms or at the former military base at Cornwallis.

"We understood that there are exemptions for essential services so that they can get here and get straight into their quarantine time, which is no different than last year with the protocols that were in place," said Melvin. "So we're hopeful it all remains the same."

$2K per person for hotel quarantine

The federal government estimates it will cost international passengers about $2,000 per person to quarantine at designated hotels at the four airports.

Melvin said that's bound to be challenging.

"It is going to cost more if they have to quarantine in Toronto. As an industry, we'll have to nail that down pretty quickly," he said, adding that it's not clear whether workers would have to quarantine for an additional two weeks once they get to Nova Scotia.

Each year, about 1,500 temporary foreign workers come to Nova Scotia to plant, tend and harvest crops. Maritime lobster processing plants employ about 2,500 temporary foreign workers.

Loss of commercial flights into Atlantic Canada

This week, all Canadian commercial flights in and out of Mexico and the Caribbean were suspended. Charters are the only option for temporary foreign workers and they are not allowed to land in Atlantic Canada.

The loss of commercial flights from source countries was already going to be a strain this year.

"There will be challenges around the reduced commercial flights coming to and from those countries, and lack of seats that may be available to get them [workers] here. It creates another hurdle," said Melvin.

Greg Gerrits of Elmridge Farms in Sheffield Mills, N.S., hires 25 'temporary foreign professionals' each year. He says they are indispensable. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Greg Gerrits said even last year's protocols — juggling quarantines and securing flights — were cumbersome.

His Annapolis Valley vegetable farm employs 25 temporary foreign workers, mostly from Mexico and some from Jamaica.

"Last year, our guys averaged a month to six weeks late.... We ran 20 per cent short on employees because we just gave up trying to get them. It was too late and we lost 10 to 15 per cent of our crop from it," Gerrits said from his farm in Sheffield Mills.

"We thought, OK, this year we're just going to have them come earlier so we can quarantine and still have them working on time. And now we don't know if that's going to happen. So here we go again."

One of Gerrits's longtime temporary foreign workers from Jamaica, Leon Allison, flew into Canada on Wednesday on one of the last flights from the Caribbean before flights from the region were suspended.

Leon Allison is one of 1,500 temporary foreign workers who come to Nova Scotia to work at farms in the province. On Wednesday, he was on one of the last commercial flights from the Caribbean before flights were suspended. (Elmridge Farms/Instagram)

"We fully expect to see him tomorrow morning," Gerrits said Wednesday. "After that, we hope that everything is properly in place, but we don't know for sure."

Allison has been coming to work at the vegetable farm for 12 years and now "virtually runs" the packing house, said Gerrits. 

"The government insists on calling them [temporary foreign workers] unskilled workers, but they are anything but," he said. "They learn their skills over years and years. They are very fast, they're very good at what they do. They come year after year. There's very little employee turnover.

"And so the price of food in this country is now based on the efficiency of these workers. We pull them out, we're done, because we cannot get Canadians, or enough of them, to do this work."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.

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