A local man who volunteers his time to work alongside temporary foreign workers in Delta’s agricultural sector says the workers deserve a chance to become Canadians.
Workers from Mexico and Guatemala work on farms and greenhouses in Delta up to 10 months out of the year, but pay taxes for services they will never access, says Jeremy Bryant.
“They are lonely and isolated being separated from their families and from the community due to language and cultural barriers,” he says. “Yet what they consistently say is that they love Canada and desire to bring their families here to be Canadian citizens.”
There are two federal programs that agricultural companies can use to address a labour shortage, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and the agricultural stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program.
Workers from the SAWP program may stay a maximum of 8 months per year, while those in the agricultural stream of the TFW program from Guatemala, Philippines or other specified countries may stay for up to 12 months, before returning home to see their families. They are allowed to come for up to four seasons before they are replaced by new workers to give others the same opportunity.
Bryant says that isn’t fair to the workers.
“Many of our ancestors came to Canada under similar temporary circumstances but were given a path to citizenship,” he says, adding the TFW program has supplanted immigration as a means to provide cheap labour to employers.
Ray VanMarrewyk, who operates a greenhouse in Delta, says most Canadian workers don’t want the work they’re offering, and those who try it often quit after a few weeks, leaving the company in a serious bind.
VanMarrewyk says labour certainty is important to his company, since a crop can spoil if there’s a sudden labour shortage.
“A lot of the recent news that’s coming out on the foreign worker programs are in industries where Canadians may be willing to do the work,” he said.
Unfortunately, those companies may be ruining it for industries like agriculture where there is a clear shortage of workers, he added.
“Temporary foreign workers in the agriculture industry in Canada do not represent a source of cheaper labour,” he said. “The program exists to supplement Canadian labour, as intended, with no cost-savings associated with bringing in foreign labour.”
VanMarrewyk points to studies that show if the Canadian agriculture industry did not have temporary foreign workers, over half of the Canadian horticulture market would be lost to imports.
As well, he says the agricultural TFW programs provide foreign workers with significantly more income than they’d ordinarily get in the country they’re coming from, where work is difficult to come by.
“For the workers, they really enjoy it, so they’re really happy employees,” he says. “They come to work with a smile on their face and they’re enjoyable to work with.”
VanMarrewyk’s company provides airfare and housing for their workers which allows them to send more money home.
“They’re building houses at home and buying land and putting their kids through school,” he says. “For the workers’ perspective there’s a lot of benefits to being part of this program.”
NDP immigration critic and MP for Newton-North Delta, Jinny Sims, says foreign workers aren’t as committed to Canada because they know they’re eventually going home again. As a result, they don’t spend money locally or contribute to the Canadian economy.
“We absolutely support a temporary foreign worker program that actually addresses acute labour shortages,” says Sims, adding the program doesn’t always work that way. “They’re in areas where you have people who are on unemployment and in the very sector that they’re being brought in for.”
Foreign worker programs have come under fire in recent months over the news that some workers were being brought into areas in Canada where locals were already collecting Employment Insurance for the same job.
As well, two labour unions took a mining company in northerneastern B.C. to court earlier this year for hiring more than 200 workers from China when Canadians were willing to do the job.
In Delta’s agricultural sector, particularly seasonal fruit-picking where local workers are difficult to find, Sims says it makes sense to have a TFW program. But in the majority of cases, Sims says immigration should fill labour needs.
Rather than addressing acute labour shortages, Sims says the TFW program has become a continuous rotation of foreign workers.
“That means they’re not temporary, the workers are temporary,” she says. “What we’re doing is replacing our immigration policies with a kind of a transient workforce.”
According to Sims, there are now 300,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada, or 50,000 more than the number of immigrants the country accepts each year.
Sims says that if there’s a consistent need for workers in the agricultural sector then the workers should be given the option to stay and live in Canada.
“If they’re good enough to work here, they’re good enough to live here,” she says.