Like any industry, agriculture requires an adequate workforce to keep operations going. Farmers continue to identify chronic and critical labour shortages as one of the most pressing risks facing Canadian agriculture and a major constraint on both agricultural growth and global competitiveness. Agriculture is a complex industry that faces unique workforce challenges due to population migration from rural areas to urban city centres and the production of highly perishable products, some seasonal in nature.
The first priority of Canadian farmers is to hire available Canadians to work on their farms. When Canadians cannot be found, farmers use the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) or other Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) streams to get the workers they need for their businesses. Without sufficient labour, farms aren’t able to operate effectively for the proper care of live animals and plants.
International workers are essential to the production of food in Canada and have been for over 50 years. Many workers come back to the same farm for many years, some as long as 40 years. Over those years, they gain important and specific production knowledge and are relied on as Canadian trained and experienced workers that support the success and quality of Canada’s food supply. They fill vacant positions when Canadians can’t be found to care for live animals and plants. These include seasonal as well as year-round jobs.
Foreign workers are issued work permits to fill vacant positions for specific lengths of time: TFWs are in Canada for a maximum of 2 years at any one time and SAWP workers are in Canada for a maximum of 8 months, although they can return again each season. They are paid the same as a Canadian worker for the same role, as regulated through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).
The TFWP helps to alleviate the chronic labour shortages within Canadian agriculture. Canadian agriculture brings in over 60,000 offshore workers every year to work on Canadian farms. Even with this program, on-farm agriculture has the highest job vacancy rate of any industry at 5.4 percent.
During COVID-19, access to international labour has become more difficult and complicated. Farmers have been forced to navigate a global health crisis that they were unprepared for, both personally and in terms of on-farm infrastructure. Outbreaks have occurred on farms with international workers, and these infections have led to the deaths of three Mexican farm workers in Canada to-date.
In response to these unfortunate deaths, migrant worker groups have released unsubstantiated reports attacking the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and farmers at large across Canada. This page will provide critical, objective information on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to help give a balanced perspective on how this program works for everyone involved.
Key Facts about Foreign Worker Programs
Reports and Analysis on Foreign Workers Programs
Impact of Access to Foreign Workers on the Agriculture Industry – This document shows the economic impacts of Temporary Foreign Workers, and also looks at the potential impacts of these workers not arriving in Canada.
A Review of Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) – This document provides an analysis on the SAWP program, which brings in foreign workers to work on Canadian farms.
Conference Board of Canada: Sowing the Seeds of Growth: Temporary Foreign Workers in Agriculture – This document provides an in-depth look at the factors that necessitate the TFWP, and also addresses some of the most common criticisms of the program, such as paying Canadians more to work on farms and finding mechanical alternatives.
Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture: Report on the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program (SAWP) – This report investigated the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program on whether or not this program benefits the workers, and areas where the program could be improved.
Agri-Food Economic Systems: Impact of the Seasonal Agricultural Work Program in the Ontario Horticulture Sector – This study provided an economic analysis of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program for the Ontario horticulture sector.
Royal Bank of Canada Farmer 4.0 Report – This report looks at the next generation of farming from a variety of angles including skills development, technological advances and other avenues Canada has to help mitigate a projected shortage of 123,000 agriculture workers by 2030.
University of Calgary: Grown Locally, Harvested Globally: The Role of Temporary Foreign Workers in Canadian Agriculture – This report is a look at the role of Temporary Foreign Workers in Canadian agriculture in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
University of Calgary: Family Farmers to Foreign Field Hands: Consolidation of Canadian Agriculture and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program – This report details how historically, temporary foreign workers replaced unpaid familial labour rather than paid Canadian farm workers