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Advocates say more change still needed in foreign worker program, even as impact limited in Essex County

Mexican and Guatemalan workers pick strawberries at a Canadian farm in 2021. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Mexican and Guatemalan workers pick strawberries at a Canadian farm in 2021. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The federal government reducing the number of temporary foreign workers coming to Canada isn't expected to have too big an impact on Windsor-Essex's agriculture industry.

But industry experts in food and beverage say they're concerned. And advocates say the change doesn't address systemic flaws.

"The temporary foreign worker program is a last resort," said Randy Boissonnault, Canada's minister of employment, on Thursday. "We expect businesses and business owners to exhaust every option and work to prioritize workers here in Canada before applying for temporary foreign workers."

The federal government allowed companies to bring in more temporary foreign workers when job vacancies were high. But with declining vacancies and the effects of the pandemic abating, the government aims to bring the temporary foreign worker population down to five per cent, from 6.2 per cent by 2027. Changes will come into effect May 1.

Most industries will have their hiring capped at 20 per cent, while the construction and health industries can be capped at 30 per cent.

Crucially for Windsor-Essex and its agriculture sector, seasonal industries will be exempt during their peak season.

Windsor-Essex agriculture mostly unaffected by changes

In Essex County, the executive director of the Ontario Vegetable Growers Association says they bring in about 8,400 workers every season.

"It's unfortunate that we can't find Canadian workers to work in agriculture and support farming," said Richard Lee. "Across Ontario, we have over 12,000 workers coming into this country to support food security."

Richard Lee is the executive director of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.
Richard Lee is the executive director of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.

Richard Lee is the executive director of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers. (CBC)

In Windsor-Essex, the greenhouse industry has brought in workers that aren't affected by the cap, Lee says.

As of May 1, labour market impact assessments (LMIAs) are valid six months, during which time temporary foreign workers must apply for their permits. The federal government says no new work permits can be applied for on that LMIA outside of that period.

Chris Conway is the CEO with Food and Beverage Ontario. He says that in the food processing industry, they're more concerned about the changes, but it's too soon to measure the specific impact in Windsor-Essex.

"We don't use as many foreign temporary foreign workers as primary agriculture does, but still we use a significant number in some of these companies and it's going to take time for this to work its way through the system," Conway said. "But you know this is not being seen as positive. Labour has been our number one challenge."

Every year, migrant workers come to Canada to work on contracts for certain industries.
Every year, migrant workers come to Canada to work on contracts for certain industries.

Every year, migrant workers come to Canada to work on contracts for certain industries. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Advocates say system needs further changes

Santiago Escobar is a national representative with the United Food and Commercial Workers union. He says they changes will be felt by workers and their families in the global south and the system needs more changes.

"The current program has power imbalance as migrant workers are tied to one employer, which is the perfect scenario for unscrupulous employers who take advantage of migrant workers," he said.

"If paths to permanent residency are expanded, this would be good news for migrant workers."

Santiago Escobar is the national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada.
Santiago Escobar is the national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada.

Santiago Escobar is the national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada. (Jason Viau/CBC)

Chris Ramsaroop is an organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers, an advocacy organization. He, too, says there are few protections for migrant workers.

"The status quo remains for the people who pick the fruits and vegetables in the Windsor-Essex area," Ramsaroop said. "This statement by the federal government, the steps are going to be taking place May 1, is going to do nothing to alleviate the concerns that they're raising and they consistently raise."

Ottawa says support available for temporary foreign workers

The federal government says the change is the result of "labour market shifts."

"Now, as Canada's labour market shifts, and pressures on our social services increase, the government is signalling its intention to reduce Canada's reliance on temporary foreign workers and help employers find the talent they need here at home," said a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada.

The ministry says it has introduced strong protections for temporary foreign workers, improved inspections and spent nearly $50 million on a program to support migrant workers and educate them about their rights in Canada.

Workers with an employer-specific permit who are experiencing abuse at their job can apply for an open work permit designed for vulnerable workers, the ministry said.

"This permit allows temporary foreign workers to work temporarily for any employer, typically for one year, without the need for a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA)."