At present, the most vexing file in Canadian horticulture is labour, with Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) initiating integrity audits of growers who do not know why they are under review. Until the audit is complete – a process that can take months – the grower cannot access seasonal agricultural workers. Without workers, a farm could go bankrupt.
Murray Porteous, 2017 chair of the Canadian Horticultural Council’s labour committee, was also under review from October 2017 to January 2018. The integrity audit of Lingwood Farms was launched three months after ESDC officials toured fruit and vegetable operations in Ontario’s Norfolk County that employ seasonal workers. Lingwood Farms comprises 750 acres of apples, sour cherries and pears as well as 100 acres of asparagus. He employs 58 seasonal workers from spring through fall.
“This is a system where you are guilty until proven innocent,” Porteous reported to the Canadian Horticultural Council annual general meeting on March 14. “This system stresses family relationships.”
It’s safe to say that dealing with the audits can cause tens of thousands of dollars in staff time and fees. The legal firm of Fasken Martineau is credited for spending a considerable amount of time building a baseline of information to defend grower cases.
There are only two plausible reasons for an integrity audit: a worker complained or a complaint came from government officials.
“My opinion is that it’s worth spending money for legal advice to know what happened,” says Porteous. “I think in the next year, horticulture will need a legal challenge. It’s not fair to put anyone in this position.”
In total, about 20,000 seasonal agricultural workers come to Canada every year to work in horticulture. Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director, Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) reported that the agricultural sector will be short 114,000 workers by 2025. “And that’s assuming a functioning Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program,” she says.
A CAHRC survey conducted in December 2017 of 548 producers who use the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program found 29 per cent of respondents had been placed under audit, with some respondents reporting having suicidal thoughts because of the stress caused.
Murray Porteous, chair of the Canadian Horticultural Council’s labour committee, has resigned the role for health reasons.