What you need to know to understand migrant labour in Canada

By Chantal Braganza - Published on September 16, 2016
a farm worker picking tomatoes
A migrant worker picks tomatoes in Leamington, Ont. (Jason Kryk/Canadian Press)



Each year, tens of thousands of migrant workers from all over the globe come to Canada to work in fields, process produce and tend to livestock. But while migrant farm labour has been a major component of Canada’s agricultural system for more than 50 years, the rules that govern these workers’ employment, the ways in which they arrive in Canada and their demographic makeup have all changed and grown.

From politics to policy, here’s a primer on migrant agricultural labour in Canada today.

What is the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program?

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) was established in the mid-1960s, after a few federal recruitment initiatives failed fill a post-war labour shortage in the country’s agricultural sector. It began with a bi-lateral agreement to allow a specific number of agricultural workers from Jamaica into Canada to work in southwestern Ontario farms on a seasonal basis in 1964, was formalized in 1966, and has since grown to allow temporary workers from 11 Caribbean countries and Mexico.

Under the program employers in the Canadian agriculture industry can hire workers from these countries on a temporary basis, for up to eight consecutive months at a time, provided the workers are citizens of one of the approved countries, have farming experience and are at least 18 years old. Employers are allowed to hire workers for on-farm agricultural work only, and for work related to a certain list of commodities, including fruits, vegetables, livestock and more.

How is it different from the Temporary Foreign Worker Program?

The agricultural workers’ program is one stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), a broader initiative that allows Canadian employers in a range of fields to temporarily hire workers from any country for varying periods of time. It’s jointly managed by Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

Established as the Non-Immigrant Employment Authorization Program in the early ’70s as a means to address labour shortages in specialized areas, the TFWP has seen a number of structural changes and expansions since.

In 2002, the program grew to include a low-skill worker stream — applicants need either a high school education or two years of job-specific training to qualify — to increase the number of eligible workers and encompass a wider range of industries. In 2006, the occupational list for low-skill work streams increased, and certain aspects of the application process were shortened to make hiring easier.

In 2011, the duration of the program also changed: foreign workers not hired through the seasonal agricultural stream are currently allowed a maximum of four consecutive years to work in Canada before they must leave for a minimum of another four. Prior to that, workers or their employers could keep re-applying for temporary status as paperwork expired.

This string of changes also affected the ways in which temporary workers came to work on farms. Aside from the SAWP, migrant workers can also arrive through the high- or low-skilled TFWP work streams introduced in 2002, or the general agricultural stream introduced in 2011, and stay for the four-year maximum. These options are particularly convenient for agricultural operations that run year-round and not just seasonally.

How much are workers paid?

For the SAWP stream, employers must pay one of the province’s minimum wage, a standard seasonal agricultural rate determined by work type and set by Employment and Social Development Canada, or the rate an employer would otherwise pay a Canadian worker doing the same job — whichever of the three is highest.

In Ontario in 2016, wage rates for agricultural work ranged from $11.25 (the province’s minimum wage) to $15.17 per hour, depending on the commodity and whether the worker qualified through SAWP, or one of the other TFWP streams.

Who takes part in these programs?

Due in part to its longevity and employers’ familiarity with the program, the  great majority of migrant farm workers in Canada come specifically through the SAWP, and most of them work in Ontario. In 2015 the province had over 24,000 migrant agricultural workers, while British Columbia and Quebec clocked in at 6,981 and 6,252 respectively. However, since its introduction in 2011, the agricultural stream under the wider TFWP has grown steadily — at close to 10,000 workers nationally in 2015 — as more year-round agricultural industries have come to staff their operations with migrant workers.

What rights do temporary foreign workers have?

Workers who come to Canada through the TFWP are tied to an employer who hires them for the duration of a specific contract; they are not permitted to work elsewhere or for another employer. Because SAWP employers are also allowed to request that specific employees return to their operations, and more often than not do so, they also wind up having a significant influence on what the resulting workforce looks like: for instance, there are very few women working via the program.

Temporary Foreign Workers pay into Employment Insurance, the Canada Pension Plan and income tax; however, access to benefits differs for TFWP and SAWP employees.

Since the SAWP is limited to eight months, its participants aren’t eligible for the full range of EI benefits, despite paying into the program.  In 2012, the federal government restricted temporary foreign worker access to special EI benefits to those qualified to work in Canada year-round. Until then, SAWP workers had access to certain parental, maternal and compassionate-ground benefits offered by the EI program.

In Ontario all agricultural workers, whether citizen or not, are excluded from the Labour Relations Act, which includes the right to organize. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada  upheld this exemption, which includes migrant farm workers.

Migrant farm workers in Ontario are covered by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, but the conditions of their employment — particularly for seasonal workers — complicate access to benefits.

What about health care?

Every migrant farm worker employed the TFWP must receive health care coverage as a condition of employment. SAWP workers in Ontario and Quebec are covered by provincial health insurance for the length of their employment; others, whether in other provinces or employed through other streams of the TFWP, are covered either by private insurance or a mix of public and private insurance, paid for by both worker and employer.

Despite being legally entitled to health care, workers face documented difficulties accessing it. Barriers include a lack of awareness of how to access the system, language difficulties and fear of employer reprisal or repatriation if they are diagnosed with a debilitating illness or injury. 

Watch the documentary Migrant Dreams: