‘Disastrous consequences’ to closing border to foreign workers, Quebec’s food production industry warns

UPA Press Conference
UPA Press Conference. Karol Dahl/Global News

Food security will be compromised if foreign workers aren’t allowed to cross the border into Canada during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Quebec’s food production industry.

The industry relies on an estimated 16,000 foreign workers every year and their employers are now calling on the government to give them an exemption under the new restrictions limiting entry to Canadian citizens and permanent residents.

“This is a question of food security,” said Union des Producteurs Agricoles (UPA) president Marcel Groleau, adding that there is nothing to panic about just yet, but that decisions need to be made in order to ensure the continuity of the food production process.

“Foreign workers are essential and that’s why we ask the Canadian government an exemption for those workers only.”

READ MORE: Canada tightens borders over coronavirus — will it curb COVID-19’s spread?

Quebec relies on temporary workers, mostly from Guatemala and Mexico, to complete all the manual tasks throughout production, from the seedlings in greenhouses to the harvesting of plants at the end of the summer season.

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“The value of the farm is about $1 billion for all the fruit and vegetable production in Quebec,” said Jocelyn St-Denis from the Quebec Produce Growers’ Association.

“They [foreign workers] have become a very, very important resource that we cannot replace suddenly with a local workforce,” said Groleau.

The UPA represents 42,000 Quebec farmers and forestry producers. They held a joint news conference Wednesday morning with L’Association des producteurs maraichers du Quebec, Sollio Groupe Cooperatif and le Conseil de la transformation alimentaire du Quebec (CTAQ), which represents 600 companies across the province.

READ MORE: Worldwide cases of coronavirus surpass 200,000 as borders close

While the leaders in the food production industry understand the new measures implemented by the Canadian government, they also want to sound the alarm about possible consequences to food security.

“We’re asking the Quebec government to support our request to the federal government,” said Sylvie Cloutier, CTAQ’s president. “They need to be allowed in.”

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Quebec’s premier addressed the issue of migrant workers during his daily update on Wednesday afternoon and explained that after discussions with the federal intergovernmental affairs minister Chrystia Freeland, she reassured him that the intention was to allow entry to those who were already scheduled to work in Canada.

“Obviously there are exceptions for example when we speak of agriculture, Guatamala has closed its airports for commercial flights,” said François Legault.

“I know that there are many (farmers) who are worried. We are in the process of making an agreement that will work with the federal government so that these workers can come do the work they do during the summer.”

If temporary workers aren’t exempted, according to one local farmer, it will also affect their families back home.

“They need this as much as we do,” said Phil Quinn, owner of Île-Perrot’s Quinn Farm.

His family farm employs eight foreign workers from Guatemala every season, which represents up to 75 per cent of his workforce during the fall harvest.

“They rely on this money to buy groceries and medication for their families.”

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