Niagara fruit and vegetable industry ‘would collapse’ without temporary foreign workers

St. Catherine’s Standards

Nick Fearns &Luke Edwards St. Catherine’s Standards Thu., Feb. 16, 2023

During a recent audit, Jamie Slingerland was given two days to provide 82 pages of documentation.

Climbing the stairs of the Niagara Stone Road winery where he’s worked for decades, Slingerland holds in his arm a filing cabinet shelf’s worth of documents related to the temporary foreign workers Pillitteri hires yearly. The bundle of papers includes the audit, as well as several other applications, reports and correspondence.

It’s a lot of paperwork to fill out when the director of viticulture would likely much rather be focused on making wine. But without the paperwork, there’s no labour. And without the labour, there's no wine.

In the agricultural industry, temporary foreign workers are mostly administered through Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS), which acts as a go-between for the government and farms. Though it may not be perfect, Slingerland believes the program works relatively well and is vital.

“If it didn’t exist, the fruit and vegetable industry would collapse. It would be a complete collapse,” he said.

In recent years, it has garnered much attention, with some accusations that the system is rife with exploitation and employers mistreating their workers or providing substandard care. While he said that’s perhaps the case on some farms, he believes it’s not as pervasive as some think.

After all, he said, most of the time, improving the life of the worker results in improved productivity for the employer.

“I think the majority of farmers are doing these things, and if they’re not, they should be,” he said.

A quick zip through some of the documentation shows a seemingly heavily regulated program with lots of oversight. In many cases, Pillitteri goes above the standards, and Slingerland said it’s not purely out of some sense of altruism. For instance, in the houses where the workers stay, they provide more refrigerator space than required. Otherwise a worker might leave something on the counter, which goes bad, gives them a stomach bug and knocks them out of commission for a day or two.

During his time at the family winery, a few Pillitteri workers moved to Canada permanently, including one longtime and loyal worker he sponsored. That experience showed him just how challenging it can be to immigrate to Canada when you’re not bringing a hefty bank account or several university degrees.

With labour difficult to find locally, it’s something he’d like to see changed. Slingerland said there should be a process set up where employers can easily indicate a worker interested in moving here. There would be some ground rules — for instance, the TFW must be in the program for five years beforehand to show a level of commitment and the employer must have a year-round full-time job available.

But assuming those conditions are met, a more streamlined immigration process could help farms with the perpetual labour shortages they face beyond the short-term need of harvest hands.

Jane Andres and Jodie Godwin argue that more needs to be done to protect the rights of temporary workers, especially those injured on the job.

The pair have long advocated on behalf of Jeleel Stewart, a Jamaican man and former migrant farm worker in Niagara who has been unable to work since 2008 thanks to a serious hand injury he suffered on the job.

Andres said the practise of “deeming,” when the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) determines that there is a job the injured worker could get and thus reduces their benefits, is something that need to be stopped as well.

Another needed change is for the work permits to be opened up and not tied to specific employers, said Andres.

Additionally, she thinks permanent residency should be part of the process for workers who have returned year after year.

Ken Forth is president of FARMS and said TFWs will continue to provide a vital service, not just to farmers, but to Ontario as a whole.

“It works for all of us. Without it, there isn't much of a fruit and vegetable industry in Ontario," he said.

Forth gets frustrated by some of the accusations that get made, pointing to the audits and oversight Slingerland mentioned as evidence that most farmers treat their TFWs right. Still, he believes the program is on a solid foundation after a couple rocky COVID-19 years where rules changed constantly.

“I'd like to see some stability in it. I'd like to see any changes that have to happen have a reason, not for political reasons,” he said.