Coronavirus: N.B. farmers relieved over lifting of temporary foreign worker ban

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WATCH: N.B. farmers relieved, frustrated over lifting of temporary foreign worker ban – May 24, 2020

New Brunswick farmers are expressing relief over the provincial government’s decision to reverse a ban on temporary foreign workers.

The province announced it would lift the ban on temporary foreign workers Friday, as part of New Brunswick’s move to the “Yellow” phase of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers can come to the province next month, provided they are able to self-isolate for 14 days before beginning to work.

Mike Slocum is feeling the pain of a farming season in flux.

Prior to the pandemic, he had planned to hire 12 temporary foreign workers to help manage the workload on his fruit and vegetable farm in Waterborough, east of Fredericton.

Work would have included harvesting cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and red peppers from a covered high tunnel, a structure that currently sits empty with only the frame still standing.

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“Due to the uncertainty… of the temporary foreign worker program, we decided not to plant this because we didn’t know who was going to harvest this product in the later fall,” Slocum said, standing at one end of the tunnel.

RELATED: New Brunswick reverses ban on temporary foreign workers

With the ban now lifted, Slocum said he’s still hoping to bring six workers to his farm this year, adding he’s concerned about the paperwork needed to secure the workers potentially getting lost in all the confusion.

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The temporary foreign worker program is operated by Service Canada. Last month, Ottawa deemed temporary foreign workers “essential”, meaning they were still allowed into Canada despite COVID-19-related travel restrictions. New Brunswick kept its provincial ban on workers in place until Friday announcement.

Slocum said he’s unsure why.

“We were very disappointed in New Brunswick’s attitude towards agriculture,” Slocum said. “We’re an importing province, but we know we can’t supply all of our food but we can supply a percentage of it. But we can’t do it under circumstances like that.”

Slocum said he entered the program 12 years ago. One of his temporary workers has been coming back every year.

He said consistency and reliability are key traits the workers bring with them.

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He said they’re not in Canada looking for other jobs, which has been a problem when hiring locally.

“So we’ll call (a local candidate for a job) the last week of May and say, ‘OK, it’s time to come to work’,” Slocum said. “’Oh, I’ve already found another job.’ ‘OK, but they didn’t notify you so now that’s off the list.’ Then you’re scrambling again. With temporary foreign workers, you don’t run into that issue.”

RELATED: Temporary foreign workers exempt from some COVID-19 travel restrictions

Slocum believes the season is salvageable for his and other farm operations, and he looks forward to, hopefully, having a full contingent of temporary foreign workers for 2021.

Another New Brunswick farmer wonders if there was more to the temporary foreign worker ban than fears over COVID-19.

Vegetable farmer Kent Coates has used temporary foreign workers for two years on his farm in Point de Bute, N.B., near Sackville.

He believes the ban was a way for the government to steer unemployed New Brunswickers toward farm and fish production jobs.

“I feel a little bit like a social experiment on my farm this year,” Coates said, adding he’s had to rely on more local workers so far this year. “It’s going to take a long time of collaboration between the sector and the government to come up with a viable solution.

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“And implementing that, imposing that decision in the midst of a pandemic, to me, has really hurt.”

It’s not clear if farmers will seek compensation from the government.

Before the ban on temporary foreign workers was lifted, the Agricultural Alliance of NB said a survey of its members estimated losses this year at $7 million.


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