No one has to convince most fruit and vegetable producers of the value of international workers – also known as temporary foreign workers -- to the agricultural labour scene.
These workers fill a chronic labour gap left by Canadians, making agriculture the largest sectorial employer under the temporary foreign worker program. About two-thirds of the people admitted into Canada each year under the program work in agriculture; about 75 per cent of them work under the auspices of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.
Last month, Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services
(FARMS) released a custom report from the Conference Board of Canada showing that the seasonal agricultural worker program contributes a whopping $2.3 billion to Ontario’s GDP, and accounts for 35,026 jobs in the province.
Those are huge numbers. But the program has its critics, too, who question employees’ treatment, among other things.
Such criticism is said to be a reason behind a surge of on-farm inspections and paperwork related to international workers in 2017-18. Some producers say they were surprised at being put under the microscope for no apparent reason, and the investigation into their activities delayed the administrative approval required to hire seasonal international workers by weeks or even months.
These delays are said to have actually put some farm businesses in peril.
The Canadian Horticultural Council (CHC) understands the program is central to horticultural crop production.
“There would be no fruit and vegetable production in Canada without international farm workers,” it says. “The impact on our food supply chain is immense, as is the impact on the families and communities of the workers who choose to take these jobs.”
Now, the CHC is trying a different approach to promote a better understanding of the program, through a new seven-part video series in celebration of international farm workers in Canada.
The council has told the international farm workers’ story in a variety of ways. But like any approach to educating adults, a breadth of efforts is most effective, with constant stimulation. That’s where video comes in, especially with a highly emotionally topic such as this.
Ken Forth of FARMS says many international workers become closely attached to the farms and families they work with, and vice versa. That’s what the videos are trying to capture.
“It’s dynamic, real-life stuff, a heartfelt thing,” says Forth, who employs 18 international workers on his vegetable farm near Hamilton. “These videos let viewers put themselves in the shoes of the workers. We’re trying to be as open as possible about international workers’ experiences here. The true facts are what people will see in the videos.”
I have the benefit of knowing some members of a farm family portrayed in one of the videos, La Ferme Quinn, in Quebec. I’ve seen from the sidelines how the farm has gone through succession and come out hugely successful.
I didn’t know, however, the depth of feelings farm owner Phil Quinn had for his international workers, from Guatemala. In one of the most emotional videos in the series, he explains the friendship:
“These people are family to us. They work next to us, they have the same values as us. At the end of the day, it’s great to have a friend like that.”
He breaks down emotionally when he talks about one of the workers using his wages, along with tools given to him by Quinn, to build the first high school in his county in Guatelmala (where high school is not free)…and the workers’ daughter being one of its first students.
Quinn concludes with an invitation. “Come see what’s going on,” he offers. “I guarantee there are only benefits.” Via video, viewers can accept his invitation.
Others are buying into this video approach, as well. Next month, the Jamaican High Commissioner is giving opening remarks at a reception and screening of the video series at the Learning Centre of the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum in Ottawa, sponsored by the CHC. Jamaican workers are among those profiled in the video series, which includes a glimpse of their life and work back home.
Determine for yourself how you think the videos measure up, by checking them out, here: