Coronavirus: Atlantic farmers seek federal answers on temporary foreign worker program

Click to play video: 'Atlantic farmers concerned over future of foreign workers in 2021' Atlantic farmers concerned over future of foreign workers in 2021
WATCH: Farmers in the Atlantic region who rely on temporary foreign workers are hoping for clarity soon on how the program will look this year. Many workers come from countries where international flights to Canada are prohibited due to COVID-19 concerns. Tim Roszell has the story – Feb 4, 2021

Farmers in the Atlantic region who rely on temporary foreign workers are hoping for clarity soon on how the program will look this year.

Many workers come from countries where international flights are banned temporarily due to COVID-19 concerns.

“Farmers are under an immense amount of pressure any given day without a pandemic,” said Suzanne Fournier, the executive director of the National Farmers Union in New Brunswick. “And adding to the burden of their labour force challenges is never going to make things easier.”

Hundreds of temporary foreign workers flock to Atlantic Canada annually to assist in various farm operations.

Last week, the federal government announced a ban until the end of April on international flights to and from southern destinations like Mexico, which is the permanent home of many temporary foreign workers.

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Fournier said farmers are concerned about possibly having to finance charter flights to bring the workers to Canada, plus hotel and wage costs during the workers’ quarantines upon arrival in the country and the region.

Mike Slocum, a fruit and vegetable farmer in Waterborough, New Brunswick, said the costs would be challenging, but would be greater if he didn’t pay them.

He said temporary foreign workers are critical to the food supply in the region and across the country.

“That’s their livelihood, too, right?” Slocum said. “That’s the same as our boys going out to Alberta here in New Brunswick and transferring every two weeks, back and forth. (Temporary foreign workers) are calling me saying, ‘We don’t know what’s going on on our end. We haven’t heard that we’re shut off.’

“That’s their income, too, for the next year.”

Nova Scotia farmers face similar questions, although the provincial government this week answered a key question about COVID-19 vaccinations for temporary foreign workers.

It announced the workers would be eligible to receive a vaccination as part of the second phase of its vaccination rollout plan, at the same level of priority as dentists and dental hygienists, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.

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The Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture (NSFA) applauded the move.

“It’s paramount to have these workers, who are often working in very close contact, be protected to ensure the continuity of our farms,” said NSFA 1st Vice President Allan Melvin. “You can’t be down for two weeks and expect to harvest tomorrow what should have been harvested 14 days ago. It’s going to be past.”

Read more: Fishing, agriculture sectors worried new travel rules will impact foreign workers

New Brunswick Health Minister Dorothy Shephard, speaking at a COVID-19 briefing, said her province is not planning to prioritize vaccinations for temporary foreign workers at this time.

She said concerns about availability of the vaccine make it unlikely those plans will change, “right now.”

She also said New Brunswick’s 14-day self-isolations are the best way to prevent the arrival of new coronavirus cases.

“It proved very effective in the past year as we had temporary foreign workers come to the province,” she said.

“They isolated, usually in the same hotel, and we had employers take diligently that effort any COVID cases were found while the isolation was happening and there was no spread.”

Employment and Social Development Canada responded via email to a request for information or an interview about the subject.

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“The Government of Canada is looking at how to integrate these measures for specific essential groups, like temporary foreign workers, as the implementation plan is developed,” said Samuelle Carbonneau of the department’s media relations office.

“This will help ensure we are supporting both workers and Canada’s food supply. We will share more information when it becomes available.”

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