Foreign workers from Jamaica may soon start arriving in the Meaford area, after the Canadian government exempted them from a strict travel ban implemented to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Brian Gilroy, owner of Nighthawk Orchards and a director with the Ontario Apple Growers, said the last couple of days have been extremely busy as they try to get the workers to the area as soon as possible. On Tuesday, he said he thinks some workers from Jamaica will start travelling later this week.
“They are geared and ready to come as soon as possible and we are optimistic some workers will be able to travel sometime this week from Jamaica,” Gilroy said. “With Mexico it is going to take a little longer to get that co-ordinated but we remain hopeful.”
Gilroy wasn’t so optimistic when the pandemic first started to take hold in Canada in mid-March and the Canadian government barred international visitors from travelling to Canada, with a few exceptions. Seasonal and temporary foreign workers were then added to the list of those that were exempted from the travel restrictions.
An estimated 60,000 workers from the Caribbean, Guatemala and Mexico come to Canada each year to work for fruit and vegetable producers, with about half of those coming to Ontario.
With the pandemic, guidelines have been put in place requiring foreign workers to isolate for 14 days upon arrival. Gilroy said the measures are challenging and it is his opinion that the isolation may put the workers more at risk in that it keeps them indoors for two weeks, rather than out in the orchards or fields where they can be a great distance apart.
“They would certainly stay isolated on the farm property and would not be going to town and those types of things. They would be monitored regularly,” said Gilroy, who has already done all the grocery shopping for his workers. “Sometimes rules are put in place without doing a benefit-risk analysis and in our opinion this is one of those cases.”
Gilroy said some producers will likely decide it is not worth the effort to bring the workers, because having them sit for two weeks will make the difference between planting and not planting.
“We are pushing the point that if we want food security, food supply consistency, the workers should be allowed to work while maintaining social distance as best as possible,” Gilroy said.
“We are trying to get the point across that we are very season dependent. We don’t set a timetable. Mother Nature sets the timetable and she doesn’t wait for anyone. We are being asked to wait.”
Gilroy said tree planting will have to be done soon, while pruning should also happen while the trees are still dormant, so the timeline is tight but should still be doable. He expects some growers will put off bringing their workers in until mid-June for hand-thinning of the trees, with hopes that the situation will have improved by then.
A message posted Monday on the Facebook page of Hi-Berry Farms in Saugeen Shores said they plan to proceed with the 2020 planting season, but have decided to delay bringing in seasonal employees from Mexico.
“We will try to start our season with able-bodied, farm labour sourced from the local community,” the statement said. “Simply put, we cannot grow fruits and vegetables without a significant amount of labour.
In an email to the Shoreline-Beacon newspaper, Hi-Berry co-owner Luke Charbonneau, who is also the mayor of Saugeen Shores, said they are hoping “for a big response” to the job posting.
“We hope to hire local people who are currently finding themselves unemployed, or students whose summer jobs might have disappeared, due to COVID-19,” he said.
He said Hi-Berry had relied on temporary seasonal workers since 2001, and some had worked in Port Elgin for 20 years.
Charbonneau said they’d consider any applicant who is physically capable of farm labour – planting, harvesting etc. – and would discuss wages with applicants.
With files from Frances Learment