Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

Canada’s way of administering its Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program — or rather the government’s way of not administering it — should be Xeroxed by the U.S.

This would be a continuation of a fine tradition in which both countries are known to rip off the best (and worst) ideas from each other. If the U.S. has a new food safety law, then Canada needs to follow suit. If the U.S. has the PACA trust for produce sellers, Canada better get on it.

If Canada has government health care, then my Lord, the U.S. is hot on the trail. If Canada invented the snowblower, then the U.S. will market a Chinese-made version for every garage in upstate New York.

I was speaking recently with Ken Forth, president of the nonprofit, grower-owned organization Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services and a Lynden, Ontario, broccoli grower.

That farmer-run organization administers Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program for farms in Ontario and Atlantic provinces. The group processes the paperwork necessary, at a cost of only $38 per guest worker, to bring in laborers from Mexico and Caribbean countries to work Ontario’s farms.

Forth made it clear that F.A.R.M.S. does not have a say in the approval of requests for workers by growers — those decisions come from the government of Canada. Once the government gives him approval to bring in foreign workers — called a labor market opinion — F.A.R.M.S. processes the orders with government authorities in Mexico and Caribbean countries and arranges travel for the workers.

The program started in 1966 with about 260 workers. In a 1985 cost-cutting move, Canada’s government outsourced the administration of the program to industry.

The thing that has made the guest worker program a popular option for farmers in Canada was that there was no other option, Forth said.

“We developed this to work, and there is no question that we worked with the government to make this thing happen over the years, little by little, to work the way we needed it to work,” he said. “That’s all we had.”

Movement of migrant farmworkers to Canada from Mexico doesn’t happen because of the immense U.S. labor market.

“A worker coming over from Mexico is not going to walk to Canada when he can get a job very close to where he is,” he said.

The U.S. also has a weather advantage in California, the Southwest and the Southeast, where agricultural jobs fill much of the calendar year.

“A lot of our jobs evaporate because of the season,” he said.

Most fresh produce growers in Ontario’s fruit and vegetable industry hire foreign workers with the program, he said.

“If the program evaporated, so would these crops, because there is not the labor here to do it,” he said.

Low local labor

Canada’s aging population combined with few people looking for seasonal employment makes it difficult for growers to attract farmworkers, he said.

“There are (Canadians) that do work on our farms, that operate equipment, but not many, and they are hard to find.”

F.A.R.M.S. brings in about 15,000 foreign workers every year to work on Ontario’s farms and about 1,000 to Atlantic provinces. The entire seasonal worker program accounts for 28,000 guest workers across all of Canada, Forth said.

Wages are calculated according to minimum wage rates in the provinces or the national prevailing wage rate, whichever is higher. Housing and transportation are also provided by growers, with workers contributing to transportation expenses depending on the length of their stay.

The program works for growers and guest workers, Forth said, with 75% to 85% of workers coming back year after year. Forth said a worker at his farm was back for his 29th year this year.

“They become part of who we are,” he said.

After the first and second world wars, many people displaced in Europe came to Canada and worked on farms, Forth said.

Now Canada’s immigration laws are strict, and the influx of workers doesn’t match demand. Canada brings in more than 350,000 guest workers every year to help out in fields such as construction, meat packing and even coffee shops, Forth said.

“(Canada) actually brings in more nannies every year than farmworkers,”he said.

The program has given farmworkers the money they need to help their families, Forth said.

“There are doctors and lawyers in place in Jamaica and other countries that were educated by their fathers working in this program and being able to pay for their education,” he said.

“That’s the real success of this thing.”

How would this program look in the U.S.?

Forth said he can’t really compare the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program to the U.S. H-2A agricultural guest worker program, since he hasn’t experienced the U.S. program. He thinks the programs have parallel purposes.

The difference, I think, is that industry in Canada is responsible for the efficiency or the “workability” of the guest worker program. In the U.S., Department of Labor bureaucrats are tasked with the job.

In my mind’s eye, a group like Western Growers or the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association could develop the staff to process the applications for guest workers at minimal cost to growers.

There would be no government shutdown that would halt processing of applications. There would be no bloated bureaucracy to feed.

Since the U.S. can’t seem to figure out a way forward on comprehensive immigration reform, let’s copy the Canadians and then claim the credit for the idea.

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