Some New Brunswick agricultural producers say they should be able to salvage their season should the government allow temporary foreign workers to enter the province.
On Tuesday, at a virtual press conference hosted by several of the province’s agricultural organizations, representatives said current efforts to fill jobs with local labour have been largely unsuccessful.
The efforts have also cost producers time during a critical period of the season.
“The decision to ban these workers from New Brunswick this spring has been devastating,” said Kent Coates, president of Really Local Harvest, on Tuesday.
“At this point the best case scenario right now is to reverse the decision. Even with the reversal the ramifications will be long-standing.”
Premier Blaine Higgs imposed the ban on the temporary foreign workers on April 28 as part of border restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19.
At the beginning of April, the federal government said it would permit seasonal foreign workers to enter the country as long as certain criteria were met, including a mandatory two week isolation period upon arrival.
New Brunswick had already succeeded in flattening the curve of COVID-19 cases and Higgs said at the time that the risk of welcoming in a large volume of workers from outside the country was too great.
“Under normal circumstances we welcome foreign temporary workers in our province,” Higgs said.
“They play an important role in New Brunswick’s continued economic growth. But right now the risk of allowing more people to enter the province is simply too great.”
The lack of workers has left a hole in the province’s labour market, particularly in seafood processing plants and the agricultural sector.
Higgs has repeatedly appealed to New Brunswickers that find themselves out of work to “step up” for New Brunswick.
But the agriculture sector still needs about 165 to 175 foreign workers to fill critical farm positions.
Efforts from the New Brunswick government to connect farms with the approximately 70,000 out-of-work New Brunswickers have only been marginally successful.
“The agricultural organizations here believe that the measures set up to replace temporary foreign workers with local labour have proved unsuccessful,” said Suzanne Fournier, executive director of the National Farmers Union.
Higgs himself acknowledged that the uptake from New Brunswickers has been less than what he had hoped.
The province has only received 250 applications for the approximately 600 positions that are normally filled by out-of-country labour.
“Given the magnitude of unemployment in the province one would suggest I might have expected it to be higher and yes, frankly, I certainly did,” said Higgs at Wednesday’s public health update.
Higgs’ position has begun to soften as local labour has failed to fill the labour void.
“I said I wouldn’t let them go without employees and I meant that I won’t,” he said.
“If we don’t fill the roster in the next few days of what’s needed right now, then there will be decisions made to ensure we can meet the need.”
Lisa Ashworth, the president of the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick, said the one positive result of the ban is that it has demonstrated that the public health precautions put in place by the federal government have worked elsewhere.
She noted that both Nova Scotia and P.E.I. have successfully brought in workers without seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases.
“Our province’s ban has at least allowed officials time to see that the federal protocols do protect public health safety,” she said.
But producers say change is needed now if the season is going to be salvaged.
Coates said he hoped to have workers arriving by Monday so their two week isolation period would be over by June. He says he could survive using only local labour, but would likely take losses in order to do so.
According to producers the issues with local labour run deeper than just wages.
Coates said he has experimented with higher wages but has not had the same luck as he has had with foreign workers.
Coates said it’s often a challenge to get locals to stick around for an entire season.
“The challenge for me has been the reliability for the whole entire season to get right through till the end. It’s not that pleasant in October when it’s cold and wet and the weather did not enable us to get the crops out in better weather,” Coates said.
But even those that are committed and dedicate themselves for full seasons often move on.
“I can count numerous wonderful staff that were here, were very committed, we got through the season but in the long run working as a farm labourer is not something that many of us aspire to,” Coates said.
Rebeka Frazer-Chiasson, president of the New Brunswick National Farmer’s Union, said attitudes around farm work will need to shift if the province is going to create a more sustainable source of locally producer food.
Frazer-Chiasson also stressed that welcoming seasonal foreign workers does not mean there won’t still be jobs for locals who want to work on farms.
“There’s still lots of opportunity and even more so if temporary workers come in to stabilize production on farms,” she said.
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“On a lot of farms there’s many vacancies for local workers.”