A new government program for agriculture workers could make life easier for some farmers in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
But critics say despite the program’s intention to protect farmworkers from abuse, it could spell trouble for them.
The Recognized Employer Pilot, announced in August, aims to help recognized agriculture employers avoid some of the lengthy paperwork they need to fill out to hire seasonal workers from outside Canada each year.
“Anything I think to lessen the paperwork that we’re already burdened with, I think, is a step in the right direction,” said Phil Tregunno, owner of Tregunno Fruit Farms. His farm employs more than 100 migrant workers annually.
He plans to apply to the new program, which has been in the works for three to four years.
Beside helping farm owners cut down on paperwork, the new program is also meant to help protect workers from abuse, the government said in a news release.
The pilot, to be run under the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, opens up to primary agriculture employers in September who have a good standing and a history of compliance with the foreign workers’ program.
This includes meeting the highest standards for working conditions, living conditions and worker protections.
Samuelle Carbonneau from Employment and Social Development Canada, the body that governs all streams of the Temporary Workers Program, said employers would have to show they’ve met these standards through their history of inspections and Labour Market Impact Assessment applications.
Those who apply for the pilot program will need to have at least three positive assessments in the past five years to be considered.
Employers have to fill out an assessment every year before applying to hire foreign workers. This is to ensure that there are no Canadian workers available to do the job and that there is a need for the workers.
If an employer’s assessments have been turned down in the past, they may be denied access to the pilot program, said Carbonneau.
This could also happen if they have been found non-compliant with the workers’ program or have had significant allegations against them, he said.
Tregunno estimates he has to fill out roughly 70 to 80 pages while completing the labour market assessment application. The number of pages in the applications has only grown in his 50 years of hiring seasonal workers, he said.
If some of that can be reduced it would help save a lot of time, he said.
However, there are some concerns surrounding the new program and its use of labour market assessments as its benchmark for proper working conditions.
Syed Hussan, executive director of the migrant-led organization Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said the new program could make it easier for employers to hire more workers and to exploit them.
The labour market assessment applications tie workers to their employers, he said.
As such, he said, the assessment system allows the federal government to “give political cover” to what he said is the “indentured” nature of the relationship between the workers and their employers.
He added that it’s “impossible” to identify good employers due to a small number of complaints and the “total failure” of the inspection regime.
“Workers don’t officially complain because of the risk of reprisals, which includes eviction, deportation, starvation, homelessness, and being banned from the country,” he said.
Due to the lack of complaints, he said he’s worried bad actors will become recognized employers under this new program, only adding to the problem of attempting to prevent workplace abuse.
He compared it to “the worst of a Tim Hortons comment card”: something that’s being put out there but not being heard by those in charge.
A 2021 report from the federal auditor general, titled titled “Health and Safety of Agricultural Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” dug into the system for inspections in agriculture workplaces.
The report concluded that Employment and Social Development Canada inspections for temporary farmworkers provided little assurance of protection for migrant workers’ health and safety in the 2020 and 2021 growing seasons.
“If it’s not possible to determine who’s a good employer, how do you go about determining who’s a recognized employer?” Hussan said.
Tregunno, however, said he does not see how the exploitation of workers would be possible because of “the oversight that we’ve got.”
He said the same oversight “from housing, the province, the feds and the Jamaican government” will still be there to ensure workers are protected.
When employer-provided housing is required under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers program and other agricultural streams under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, employers must meet provincial and program housing requirements, he said.
However, provincial housing requirements differ from the seasonal program rules, as an investigation by The Lake Report showed last November.
For the new pilot program, employers who apply will go through a “more rigorous upfront assessment process,” said Carbonneau.
That is to ensure only the best of the best employers, who are in compliance with health and safety and housing standards and have had five successful labour market assessment applications in a row, are chosen.
Hussan still has concerns. “We’ll see how that actually goes,” he said.
Somer Slobodian, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report