Temporary foreign workers allowed, but farmers wonder when they'll arrive

Vernon River vegetable farmer Dale Hickox says he's counting on 70 temporary foreign workers from Mexico to help with this season's crop of cauliflower, broccoli and brussels sprouts. But the first group of workers is already overdue.

'I've got a Plan B, and that would be, there'll be nothing planted'

Vegetable farmer Dale Hickox, second from left, is shown in 2018 with some of his staff. (P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture)

Vernon River vegetable farmer Dale Hickox says he's counting on 70 temporary foreign workers from Mexico to help with this season's crop of cauliflower, broccoli and brussels sprouts.

But the first group of workers is already overdue, and if they aren't able to make it this season, Hickox doesn't have much of a backup plan.

"I've got a Plan B, and that would be, there'll be nothing planted," he said. "I need 70 men, workers, to harvest my crop, and I won't bother to put it in the ground if it doesn't look like we're going to have the workers."

Facing an outbreak of COVID-19, the federal government announced March 16 it would restrict non-residents from entering the country. Americans were briefly exempted.

Then on March 27 — the day Hickox's first seven workers were supposed to arrive to help plant seedlings in his greenhouses — the government officially lifted the restriction to allow temporary foreign workers to come.

Those workers are still required to be isolated for 14 days upon entering the country, just as they would be if they were Canadians returning home from abroad.

Under the terms of the seasonal agricultural worker program, they're also required to obtain a clean bill of health before leaving their home country.

According to the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, 300-400 temporary farm workers are brought to the Island each season, making up eight per cent of the agricultural workforce. (Jason Kryk/Canadian Press)

Tens of thousands of temporary farm workers come to Canada each year from countries like Mexico and Jamaica, including 300-400 who come to P.E.I. each season.

But just lifting the entry restriction isn't all that's required to get the workers to Canada when so many borders are closed, and commercial air travel has been disrupted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Already more than a month behind

Hickox said the agency that co-ordinates travel for his workers is planning to charter planes to bring them to Canada.

His hope is to have the first group of workers here — and ready to work following their 14-day self-isolation — by the beginning of May, five weeks behind schedule.

Robert Godfrey, executive director with the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, said timing is "very crucial."

"We have a tight window to grow things in this part of the world, so COVID-19 or not, the calendar moves forward, and we need to be positioned to go to the field, plant our crops, and service them and harvest them within that time period."

Godfrey said the federation is part of regional discussions in the Maritimes around the logistics of getting the workers where they need to be once they arrive in Canada.

Incoming international flights are restricted to four airports across the country, meaning workers for this region would arrive in either Toronto or Montreal. There are questions around how they will then get to farms in the Maritimes, and at what point they will be required to go into isolation.

Robert Godfrey says one contingency plan being discussed with the provincial government would be to convince Islanders laid off from other jobs to help with the crops this year. (Jessica Doria-Brown)

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has provided some direction on how workers must be housed given the need to self-isolate. Godfrey said the industry is awaiting further guidelines.

"We have to be respectful of the people of Prince Edward Island and make sure that everybody is safe," he said. 

"Not only just to protect general Islanders but to protect the local labour they also have in their workforce, giving them the reassurance that these temporary foreign workers that work alongside them ... are not carrying COVID-19."

Appeal to laid-off workers

Godfrey said temporary foreign workers make up eight per cent of P.E.I.'s farm labour supply. There are talks underway with the provincial Department of Agriculture on what to do if the workers arrive late, or in insufficient numbers.

"We've talked about the fact that there's a significant amount of people that have been unfortunately laid off given what's been going on. Is there a way to tap into that … bring people into the sector that haven't traditionally worked on a farm?"

Hickox, seen here inspecting weather damage to his 2018 vegetable crop, says he advertises for local workers but can't fill his positions. He doesn't want to take in workers laid off from other jobs for fear of losing them if things go back to normal. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

But Hickox said he advertised his jobs locally this year, as he does every year as one of the requirements for bringing in temporary foreign workers.

"My jobs were out there for three months and there [were] no takers," he said. 

He said he wouldn't want to bring in workers who had been laid off from other jobs.

"What happens to me if things return to somewhat normal in July or August and these people go back to their own jobs?"

For now he said he's relying on family members to help get his greenhouses planted while waiting for his Mexican workers to arrive.

"If we don't get it done at this stage then there's no future. We have to start all our vegetables in the greenhouses and they have to go in now."

COVID-19: What you need to know

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Common symptoms include:

  • Fever.
  • Cough.
  • Tiredness.

But more serious symptoms can develop, including difficulty breathing and pneumonia, which can lead to death.

Health Canada has built a self-assessment tool.

What should I do if I feel sick?

Isolate yourself and call 811. Do not visit an emergency room or urgent care centre to get tested. A health professional at 811 will give you advice and instructions.

How can I protect myself?

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Clean regularly touched surfaces regularly.
  • Practise physical distancing.

More detailed information on the outbreak is available on the federal government's website.

More COVID-19 stories from CBC P.E.I.


Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.