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Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program at root of agri-food industry
Signs of life and renewal are impossible to ignore on farms across Ontario as spring kick starts the growing cycle.
Buds beginning to sprout on fruit trees. Shoots poking from the soil in greenhouses in preparation for May planting. And in orchards and greenhouses everywhere, farmers and the workers who help them are busy laying the groundwork for the eventual harvest.
Dig down a little deeper beneath the surface, and you’ll find a highly successful labour program at the root of Ontario’s important fruit and vegetable industry — an industry that faces unprecedented challenges from low-wage international competitors on the global market.
The 46-year-old Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) is widely regarded as the best of its kind in the world.
Administered by Mississauga-based Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS) on behalf of Ontario farmers, the program was initially established in 1966 to respond to a critical shortage of available local Canadian agricultural workers.
Nearly half a century later, the program continues as a supplement to local labour and serves the same vital function on an even larger scale.
It is expected that approximately 15,000 seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad/Tobago and the Eastern Caribbean States will be connected with employment on farms across Ontario this season, as the program has done each year for the past decade.
Because SAWP is a “Canadians first” program, seasonal farm labour is hired from other countries only if agricultural operators cannot find domestic workers to fill vacancies.
Ontario farmers pay the highest farm worker wages on average in North America and face intense pressure from international competitors trying to eat into their market share.
Without the steady source of reliable seasonal workers provided through SAWP as a supplement to local labour, many farmers in Ontario’s agri-food industry simply couldn’t remain economically viable. They’d be forced to stop growing fruits and vegetables altogether or move into less labour-intensive crops.
As a result, Canada would lose a vital source of high-quality, healthy food grown locally and a farming tradition that stretches back to the early days of the province’s European settlement would vanish.
Ontario’s rural communities would also be dealt a damaging economic blow. Two jobs for Canadians are created in the agri-food industry for every seasonal agricultural worker employed through the program at Ontario farms.
Knowing a reliable source of seasonal workers exists allows farmers to plan for the future, invest in their operations and continue a livelihood that has sometimes been shared by their families for generations.
Not only does the program benefit Ontario farmers and our overall economy, but also it pays tremendous dividends for the seasonal workers hired each year and the source countries which are partners in SAWP.
Seasonal workers can earn as much as five times or more working here than they could in their own countries. They are paid an hourly rate set by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada that is no less than the provincial minimum wage rate or the prevailing rate paid to Canadians doing the same job, whichever is greatest.
This income allows the workers to improve the standard of living of their families, educate their children and buy and operate businesses and farms in their own countries.
Contracts signed by seasonal workers and their employers guarantee them all the protections and benefits that Canadian workers receive, including WSIB, certain EI benefits and provincial health care coverage.
Farm employers must provide suitable accommodation to seasonal workers at no cost. They must also adhere to strict housing standards which are regulated by several government bodies, including local public health units, Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing and, in some areas, fire inspection.
Seasonal workers are restricted to a period of employment lasting no longer than eight months in a year and are guaranteed no less than 240 hours of work. The average length of stay for workers is 20 weeks.
The program is so popular among workers reaping these benefits that approximately 85% of them opt to return on repeat contracts.
Countries that have partnered with Canada in SAWP also benefit, receiving a significant infusion of foreign currency. But the benefit isn’t just monetary. Farm workers return home with new skills and experience that they can pass on in a knowledge transfer that improves agricultural practices in their own countries.
Given the positive spin-offs to all involved, it’s no wonder the program that helps sustain Ontario’s agri-food industry is being eyed as a model by governments and agricultural organizations around the world.
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(Ken Forth is president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.), the non-profit organization that administers the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. He is an owner/operator of a broccoli farm outside of Hamilton, Ont. in Rockton.)