Ken Forth has gladly hired workers from other countries to work on his farm for more than 30 years through Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP).
As president of the non-profit Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.), he knows first-hand how crucial those workers are for farmers who can’t find enough Canadians willing to do the seasonal work.
F.A.R.M.S. coordinates the processing of requests for foreign seasonal agricultural workers.
SAWP reached the 50-year milestone this year and Forth notes it’s cooperation between the supply country governments, the Canadian government, the farmers and the workers who’ve made it continue to be a success.
Locally, Martin’s Family Fruit Farm and Shuh Farms hire workers through the program to work in their orchards. And rightly so, says Forth.
“There’s an absolute need of it in our industry. And the workers, there’s 30,000 of them across Canada in this program and they have a direct touch on five people at home, that’s 150,000 people that they have made their lives better as a result of coming here, making between 10 and 20 times what they could make at home,” Forth said.
The program began in 1966 when 263 seasonal workers from Jamaica were brought to Ontario to fill a shortage of Canadian workers.
“We had huge amounts of people come over between the first and second world wars. The First World War people are gone by now, but the Second World War people, they started retiring in the ‘60s because they came here as middle-aged people usually. So they were retiring in the 1960s and that’s when this program started because there was a need to have workers,” he explains.
Workers that Forth hired through the program on his farm are from Jamaica. Normally, they’d have to choose amongst their children who gets to go to high school because it’s not free. Now, many of the workers have children with university educations.
“It’s huge. You want to help a nation, you can throw as much money as you want at it. You educate them, you change the world. I know one Mexican worker in Niagara. He has paid for three university degrees, two of his kids and one of his grandkids. So, I mean it’s a real success story,” he said.
They typically come to Canada to work for an average of 22 weeks out of the year from Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad/Tobago and the eastern Caribbean states.
“They’re more than just employees. They go to each others’ funerals and weddings, that’s the way it is. Not quite family, but darn near,” Forth said.
There are 125 different types of commodities within the program that workers plant, tend to, and harvest. The workers are coming to and from Canada everywhere from Jan. 1 to Dec. 15, depending on what commodity they’re working with.
He notes they hire lots of Canadians, but there just aren’t enough willing to do the seasonal work to fill all the jobs because you can’t live on only six to eight months of work a year in Canada. The foreign workers will earn 10 to 20 times what they would in their home country, making it a viable option, Forth says.
For example, Mexico’s minimum wage is 50 cents an hour compared to Ontario’s $11.25.
“It just works so nice. The guys or the women, whatever you have, they by and large love the program. It gets in their blood coming up here a few weeks a year to make extra money for at home, but the ridicule that this program receives is simply not true,” Forth said, addressing the negative feedback of the temporary foreign workers program, which covered sectors beyond agriculture.
He says the program has worked well for half a century and will continue to for a long time, so long as governments, farmers, and workers keep collaborating.
He’s also hopeful the program will evolve to the point where there are no more reports of groups running farmers and workers into the ground.
The program is reviewed annually to ensure it’s running smoothly on all sides.
“I think that the people in Canada should embrace the fact that we bring temporary workers in because we bring in 17,000 in Ontario and we had an independent study done and it showed that over 34,000 Canadian full-time jobs were created as a result of these guys being here,” Forth said.
The demand for these workers is expected to remain steady with baby boomers retiring and fewer people entering farming as a career.
For more information about SAWP, visit www.farmsontario.ca.