PEI

Temporary foreign workers from Mexico still coming to P.E.I. farms, agriculture group says

P.E.I. will still be taking in more temporary foreign workers from Mexico, says the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture.

‘There's still a great need for this program’

P.E.I. has received about half of its expected temporary foreign workers on farms for 2020. (CBC News)

Despite concerns raised this week, P.E.I. will still be taking in more temporary foreign workers from Mexico, says the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture.

On Monday, the Mexican ambassador to Canada Juan José Gómez Camacho said the country would not be sending more temporary foreign workers to Canada. This comes after two temporary foreign workers died in the Windsor, Ont. region.

"We've got clarification that Mexico is actually referring to those who have had cases of COVID-19, primarily in southern Ontario, or farms where they've had issues with either the treatment of workers or housing issues," said Robert Godfrey, executive director of the the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture.

"It's certainly an issue for Canada, but Prince Edward Island is going to be able to receive some more temporary foreign workers from Mexico."

Godfrey said the federation reached out to officials from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture to get clarification on what the news would mean for P.E.I. farmers.

"There was a lot of concern yesterday morning, especially when the story first broke," Godfrey said. "They're fairly concerned that they weren't going to be able to have those people here to do the work."

'Once they hit a farm there, they're safe'

The option to hire temporary foreign workers is available to Canadian employers who have been unable to recruit Canadian citizens or permanent residents for their job openings. Applicants have to prove through a series of assessments that hiring a temporary foreign worker is their only option. 

Last year, 1,400 temporary foreign workers were issued work permits for P.E.I.

And while Mexico's concerns seem to be around safety of workers, Godfrey said he believes P.E.I. is doing a good job to contain COVID-19 among the general population and ensuring the safety of both migrant workers and Islanders.

"We've set them up in Brudenell, even opening up the resort at Crowbush for a short period of time and they're quarantined for 14 days where you know there's no people coming in and out of the facility," he said. 

After workers finish their 14-day isolation, Godfrey said they are picked up and brought to their farm of employment.

"We've done very well in quarantining the disease, so I think that it's unique here," he said. "I'll knock on wood saying this … temporary foreign workers coming into P.E.I., once they hit a farm there, they're safe."

P.E.I. has not reported a new case of COVID-19 in over seven weeks. It's estimated that 300 Mexicans working in Canada have been infected by the novel coronavirus.

No workers means labour shortages

Godfrey said this is the time of year that temporary foreign workers in agriculture are arriving, primarily to work in the harvest of strawberries and other small fruits. P.E.I. typically has 300 temporary foreign workers in agriculture on the ground by June 1.

So far this year, Godfrey said Island farmers have received about 150 workers. 

Most workers in agriculture are coming from Mexico and Jamaica, as Canada has an agreement with those countries for seasonal agriculture workers.

"I know one individual, he's got one worker here of 12," Godfrey said. 

"I know there are certain farms on Prince Edward Island that are yet to receive their workers at all and I know one operation in particular has gotten none of them in here yet, all of them which come from Mexico."

I think that you'll see our numbers come up, but overall they'll be down— Robert Godfrey, P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture

Godfrey said a lack of temporary foreign workers means critical shortage issues for Island farmers who have come to rely on the labour. 

"There's certain farmers in parts of Canada that have just decided that they've been unable to plant a crop without temporary foreign workers ... you need labour in order to put a crop in, to manage their crops and take it out," he said

"If you don't have the labour force there to get those jobs done, you've got serious questions about running your business."

Not enough Islanders

Even with the COVID-19 situation putting many Islanders temporarily off or permanently out of their jobs, Godfrey said the farm labour is grueling and intensive and often involves long days of manual labour.

Temporary foreign workers pick sweet peas in Richmond, Ont. (Reno Patry/CBC)

"I know there's certainly cases where people have opened their eyes to agriculture, which is very encouraging and great, but there still remains a shortage of workers," he said.

"I think there has been some people who have stepped into those roles, but for primary labour there's still a great need for this program."

Godfrey remains optimistic that more workers will arrive.

"I think that you'll see our numbers come up, but overall they'll be down," he said.

"Certainly it's a different year."

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Island Morning, The Canadian Press, Sally Pitt and Kevin Yarr

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