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U of C report explores crucial link between food security, foreign workers

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WATCH: A new report from the University of Calgary is examining the role of temporary foreign workers in Canadian food supply chains. As Emily Olsen reports, many Alberta farmers and consumers will be feeling the pinch this year as pandemic restrictions limit the availability of TFWs – Jul 17, 2020

A new report out of the University of Calgary is shining a light on how COVID-19 related border restrictions have had an impact on Canadian agriculture, by significantly impeding the use of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in Canada’s food-production system.

Broxburn Vegetables, located outside of Lethbridge, typically employs about eight temporary foreign workers each year to assist with harvesting produce.

“We rely on these people,” Broxburn owner Paul De Jonge said. “They’re very used to this manual labour, they’re comfortable working here, they want to come back every year.”

Read more: Alberta’s food supply chain remains strong, no need to panic buy: officials

De Jonge says they usually stagger the arrivals of TFWs, but couldn’t this season, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

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“This year we took all eight at once because we were concerned it would be difficult –and it was difficult,” De Jonge admitted. “Then, when they did come, they were not allowed to work for two weeks which was difficult for us.”

The U of C report explores how COVID-19 restrictions reveal the vulnerabilities of the food supply chain, especially when it comes to temporary foreign workers on which many Alberta’s farms and processing plants have become reliant.

“They allow producers to produce more,” author Robert Falconer explained. “Especially, if you remember, earlier in this pandemic it was very difficult to get some goods in grocery stores. Without foreign workers, you might see grocery store shelves that are a little bit more bare, more reliant on imports at higher prices.”

Falconer also argued that although many Canadians are currently out of work, replacing TFWs with Canadian workers may not be practical, or provide any more food security. 

“What they’re hoping to do is go back to their old jobs as soon as the economy reopens,” Falconer said, “And for farmers, they need someone who will be there for the whole season, who’s experienced. And that’s why it’s not as easy of a switch out to ‘let’s just hire more Canadians.’”

Read more: Some Alberta farmers bracing for worst harvest in 18 years: ‘The damage is done’

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De Jonge has experienced this first hand.

“As soon as there is a job opening for a welder then they probably would prefer to go back to their original job,” De Jonge explained.

“That for us is very difficult because the plants don’t stop growing. They need to be harvested daily. And so if we have a lot of turnover that is very hard to manage.”

The report is the first of two examining the role of TFWs, the risks they face, and how policy-makers can address these risks and secure Canada’s food supply chain. 

The second report is expected to be released in the coming weeks.

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