Strategy to protect farm workers and food supply

By MPP Toby Barrett 

Farm workers are essential to both the provincial and federal economies. COVID-19 has demanded many changes in all workplaces; however, drastic and immediate changes on farms posed challenges this season to keep workers safe while ensuring food production continued. 

The Ontario Government has taken a leadership role by working with federal and local authorities to support the implementation of an enhanced response, which includes a coordinated approach. We recently launched a comprehensive strategy called The Prevention, Control and Outbreak Support Strategy for COVID-19 in Ontario’s Farm Workers. The strategy provides guiding principles and actions on how to ensure enhanced prevention and control on farm operations. 

Ontario’s agri-food sector makes significant use of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to address labour shortages, particularly via the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). 

Ontario’s horticulture and greenhouse sector relies very heavily on foreign workers. These industries face labour pressures, particularly during seasonal peaks because of the need to plant, pick or package many products. Ontario’s agriculture sector is the largest user of the TFWP of all provinces in Canada and thus faces unique challenges compared to other provinces. 

About 15,260 seasonal agricultural workers arrived in Ontario this growing season, including 11,260 workers who arrived after border restrictions were lifted April 1. This represents 20 per cent fewer workers compared to the previous year, which saw 18,000 SAWP workers arrive in the province. The travel restrictions imposed in March had a significant impact on 2020 arrivals.  

All workers should be safe and sound at the end of each day. These are the workers ensuring we have food in grocery stores and on our table. They deserve our gratitude and support. 

The federal government is responsible for the TFWP as well as the living conditions for the workers. However, the provincial government took swift action, working with farms and food processors to implement measures to increase employee health and safety. 

Our strategy was developed through wide industry consultations, including with groups that provide health and support services for TFW. This strategy will support a sustained and long-term plan to ensure Ontario has the tools needed to protect workers and prevent outbreaks in agri-food workplaces in the future.  

To help farmers better protect employees the government has pledged $26.6 million for the purchase of PPE, enhanced cleaning and disinfection, redesigning workspaces, upgrading HVAC systems, creating physical barriers and hand-washing facilities. 

Another $25.5 million has been earmarked for the launching of an online toolkit that provides farmers with detailed information and resources for COVID-19 prevention and mitigation, as well as testing, social and mental health supports, employment and wage information. Translating COVID-19 documents into Spanish, along with webinars is also an important part of the strategy. 

These monies will also aid in increased inspections. This past growing season, the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development conducted over 800 on-farm inspections and issued nearly 300 orders. The province is also working with the federal government with new joint farm inspections. 

I welcome this new Made in Ontario plan to control the pandemic, protect our food supply and keep workers safe. I also reiterate that Norfolk farms operate under a restriction found nowhere else in North America. Section 22 limits workers to three to a bunkhouse, despite the ability of many bunkhouses to house more than three workers. Section 22 competitively hobbles our area farmers. 

Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk