Foreign workers, B.C. efforts saved season, Island farmers say

Temporary foreign workers from Mexico — and the provincial government’s efforts to get them here amid the pandemic — are being credited with saving the season for several farms in the capital region.

Terry Michell said that Michell Farms would have only been able to plant and harvest about half its 450 acres and 30 crops if foreign workers were prevented from coming into the country because of COVID-19 concerns.

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About half of Michell’s 40 farm workers are foreigners who arrived over several weeks in April, May and June after the province initiated — and paid for — a 14-day quarantine program.

The Ministry of Agriculture said in a statement it has so far spent $9.5 million on accommodations, meals and laundry service for temporary foreign workers in quarantine.

Before the mandatory 14-day self isolation rules were put in place, B.C. had 1,990 temporary foreign workers arrive prior to the end of March. Since mid-April, more than 4,000 of the workers have arrived and self-isolated in hotels while being monitored for symptoms. They are only able to travel to farms once they are cleared by public-health officials.

So far, 36 have tested positive for COVID-19, 35 of whom have fully recovered and gone on to work at farms. The remaining worker remains in quarantine in a hotel. “[The quarantine program] was one thing [Premier] John Horgan and the provincial government did right … it really saved us,” said Rob Galey of Galey Farms, who has 16 Mexican workers.

The Galey operation is based in Saanich, but the family leases dozens of fields throughout the region and grows everything from berries to corn and vegetables.

Galey said he believes the B.C. government was the only province to offer a quarantine program for the farm workers. “[Farmers] are under a huge workload, and huge stress, so to have the province take care of the quarantine for us was a big load off.

“They must have taken out every hotel room in Richmond. They laundered and fed them and then after 14 days, took them to B.C. Ferries, where we picked them up. It was a big emotional release for a lot of farmers, because many of us wouldn’t have been able to do [the quarantine] ourselves or had the time.”

Galey said he has employed some of the Mexican workers for about 10 years. They are paid minimum wage, $14.65 an hour, and are provided with housing.

A lot of the workers send most of their paycheques home to families.

“They shouldn’t be called temporary foreign workers,” said Galey.

“They are farmers. They know this business. They work with plants and they are very good at what they do. They are 100 per cent dedicated. If I have a problem on the farm, they say: ‘No problem, we got this.’ ”

Like many of the area’s larger farmers, Galey has come to rely on foreign workers.

Each year, B.C. farms employ about 10,000 temporary foreign workers from Mexico and other countries.

Galey said he had to start the planting year with locals, which was difficult. “They come and go. There’s no schedule. I’m grateful, [but] some days only five show up, other days 20 show up.

As soon as restaurants reopened, almost all of them left, Galey said. The same thing happened when the federal government offered and then extended the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which provides $500 a week.

Michell said he has enough workers at the moment, between temporary foreign workers and regular employees. He said the farm also usually has seven workers from India, but they were unable to return after being restricted in their own country due to the pandemic.

On the Saanich Peninsula, Dan’s Farm has 24 workers — including seven from Mexico — but could always use more, said farmer Dan Ponchet, who has been picking blueberries, strawberries and raspberries. Pickling cucumbers are waiting and the corn is coming on strong.

Ponchet had originally wanted nine temporary foreign workers from Mexico — he’s been hiring them for the past 13 seasons — but ended up with seven due to strong demand from other farms, and the various restrictions surrounding the pandemic.

The farm would like to hire more locals, but Ponchet said it’s hard to get them on weekends when they’re needed. The work is also demanding and not as highly paid as other physical work.

Silver Rill Farm, which grows corn, berries and vegetables on the Saanich Peninsula, is getting by without foreign workers. Clayton Fox said family members and a few other employees are picking berries and corn. “Friends, brother-in-law and employees are filling gaps. I do a lot myself. We sometimes get travelling couples to pick.

“We’re trying to get more employees now with a lot of people off work. But people are getting paid by CERB, so it’s been tough.”

A report this week by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy said Canadian agriculture is increasingly relying on temporary foreign workers.

The report by Robert Falconer said the end of 2019 saw a new record for the number of temporary foreign workers in Canadian agriculture. About 64,000 foreign workers arrived to work in agricultural industries, including seafood-packing plants in the Maritimes, orchards in British Columbia and cattle ranches on the Prairies.

While the number of Canadians working in agriculture has remained stagnant, with a slight decline in recent years, according to Statistics Canada’s 2020 data, the number of foreign workers working in agricultural production, processing or transportation rose by 52 per cent between 2015 and 2019.

The report said although the economic effects of the pandemic have put many Canadians out of work, replacing temporary foreign workers with Canadians may not be practical. “Producers may not be able to hire Canadians willing to work on farms, ranches or in food-processing plants in sufficient numbers to make up for the shortfall in TFWs,” said Falconer. He noted that when New Brunswick banned the entry of temporary foreign workers due to the pandemic, it did not result in a significant increase in local hiring.

If producers are increasingly unable to rely on international labour to produce food, Canada’s food supply may be at risk, said Falconer.

In 2019, B.C. had the third-highest number of temporary foreign workers in Canada at 12,930. Ontario had double that figure and Quebec more than 16,000.

B.C. is expecting about 500 more temporary foreign workers to arrive this summer.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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