By Tim Kalinowski
The Western Canadian Wheat Growers is wanting more details from Ottawa on how they intend to allow Temporary Foreign Workers and seasonal workers in the agriculture sector to enter the country despite the risks of COVID-19.
“No one is taking (COVID-19) lightly,” says WCWG director Kenton Possberg who also farms near Humboldt, Saskatchewan. “That’s a grave concern for everybody around the world.
“What we are proposing is if we can bring these people over, that we follow the same 14-day quarantine period; so that when they arrive they immediately go into quarantine. After that, they should be clear of any infection and they can operate as normal.”
The Western Canadian Wheat Growers estimates about 50,000 farm workers are brought into Canada every year, and have become a vital labour source for the industry.
“The bulk of those would be in the horticulture industry,” Possberg explains. “Some of those would be in the livestock industry, and then there are probably around 2,000 people brought in for the grains and oilseeds industry.
“We are not a factory,” he states. “We can’t idle production for two months, and then ramp production back up and its business as usual and we only lose those two months. We’re in an industry where we get one shot, and that one shot is coming pretty quick.
“If that crop does not get planted on time, or if it is delayed in any fashion, it’s at risk of a late harvest or an early frost.
“What sets us apart from other industries is we are dealing with food production, and I think that is a critical piece we need to ensure is going to continue and not be interrupted.”
Possberg says the federal government has other vital concerns surrounding COVID-19 at the moment, but he hopes farmers can be get greater clarification on this particular issue.
“We have been talking to different levels of government,” he says. “Right now it’s tough to even get a phone call back just with the speed at which all this change is taking place”
“Every day there seems to be a new level (of crisis) we’re going to,” Possberg adds.
“I think there is the fear that as we’re approaching the planting season here these travel restrictions would still be in effect and we can’t get these people in. We’re not sure what that’s going to mean.”
The federal government has recently recognized agriculture as an essential industry during this time of crisis, and has put some big dollars out there for farmers and agri-food processors to utilize to ensure things continue to run in the food supply chain.
In this light, Possberg says it is justified that farm labour should also be considered an essential workforce and warrant special permissions for seasonal farm labourers to make their way into Canada before the spring planting season with the appropriate precautions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“With agriculture, we are dealing with food production,” he reiterates.
“We’re dealing with live animals. We are dealing with growing seasons we can’t pause. We do feel labour of agriculture is an essential service, and that we need to be cognizant of that fact. So if we could let some of these workers in, follow the same protocols as other travellers and even some more stringent protocols just to ensure that these people are going to be safe and free of any illness, then we will do what we have to do.
“But we have to ensure we have workers in place for this coming growing season.”