The federal government can do something to help Ontario’s $900-million mushroom sector — that is, extend or change the temporary foreign worker program. Such a change might help other agri-food sectors too and give new skilled Canadians a productive place in our society.
The agri-food sector’s struggle with labour is widely known. Canadians like to eat, like to support local food and say good things about Canadian agriculture. But when it comes to manual farm labour, forget it. For the most part, when it comes to anything other than pick-your-own, they’re reluctant to lift a finger.
And while automation has taken farming to new heights, manual labour is still a part of agriculture, especially in some sectors and especially for harvesting.
The mushroom sector is a classic example. It harvests year-round, giving workers the chance to refine their skills on a long-term basis.
But the sector is in a real bind. In fact, it’s predicting a crisis will beset it next year.
It even knows the date: April, 2015.
That unusual insight is based on a four-year-old federal law related to temporary foreign workers, who make up around a quarter of Ontario’s mushroom-harvesting workforce. Harvesting is labour intensive, and like many farm labour jobs, most Ontarians aren’t interested in it…even though the most experienced mushroom harvesters can make up to $24 an hour.
In mushroom harvesting, experiences counts. New harvesters get six weeks of training and are up to speed in about six months (during training, they’re paid minimum wage).
Here’s the crunch. These workers are not seasonal workers. They’re temporary. And in 2011, Ottawa arbitrarily passed legislation that says these temporary workers cannot stay in Canada more than four years.
At that point, the workers must return to their home country. And they can’t come back for another four years.
That means anyone working in Canada before April 1, 2011 will have to go back next April. And when they do, the mushroom industry is predicting there’ll be a labour crisis. Not only will the current crop of trained workers be simultaneously lost, there’ll be a plethora of new ones to bring on all at once.
What can be done?
To start with, the industry wants Ottawa to offer an extension to the current workers. Then, it wants Ottawa to reconsider the four-year period. And finally, it wants to discuss granting the workers residency.
Susan McBride Friesen, director of human resources at Leamington-based Highline Mushrooms, whose company employs 180 temporary foreign workers at three locations, says that after training and four years of work, the temporary workers are no longer unskilled labour. They have special skills that are vital for the industry.
Over the past year, mushroom growers have beat a path to everyone’s door they can think of – MPs, deputy ministers, lobbyists, you name it. But given the ugliness that’s beset the temporary foreign worker program in the fast food sector, so far they’ve found no politicians interested in taking on their cause. So they’re going public to try to make their issue known more widely.
Many people will see this primarily an employment and immigration issue, but it’s also a food and agriculture issue.
If Ontario — home to Canada’s biggest processing sector — is to meet food export targets and grow its economy, it needs manual labourers, and in this case, workers who can go on to develop specialized skills.
Why send them home if they want to stay, if they’re not taking jobs from others and if they can become productive Canadian citizens?