With over 22,000 temporary foreign workers on farms in Alberta, producers hiring seasonal workers can expect a visit from federal government inspectors to ensure compliance. Earlier this year, the federal government sent letters to employers of temporary foreign workers stating that they would be conducting on-site inspections.
This includes those hired through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) which allows for the hiring of seasonal employment when Canadian or permanent resident workers are unavailable. Any farmer using the program can be audited if there has been a complaint, have previously been non-compliant or through random selection.
Producers understand the government’s need to ensure workers are treated fairly, but unannounced visits when farmers are in their busy season is a concern. Farmers who have already been audited have commented on the amount of personal time required to answer questions and find documents.
“I’m hearing from the guys who are upset about the red tape,” comments Martin Shields, member of parliament for Bow River Constituency in Alberta.
Fruit producers in Ontario have said the process has taken hours of time over several months. In addition, when being audited pending permits for new workers may be suspended and depending on the season could reduce employees during critical operations such as planting or harvest.
“Producers wonder who will be doing the work if they can’t access temporary foreign workers when needed,” states Shields.
Canadian farmers have been employing TFW since 1966 because of ongoing agriculture labour shortages and the need for seasonal employment. Canadians and permanent residents are seeking full-time, not seasonal employment.
“Because it is a seasonal job, we just can’t get Canadians,” stated several producers who utilize the program.
The number of TFWs reached a record high in 2013. The government decided to revamp the TFW policy in 2014, after government audits found that employers were hiring temporary foreign workers without first proving they had exhausted all options for hiring domestic labour. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada dropped from 163,000 to just over 90,000 as a result of the changes to the program.
For both beekeepers and pork producers, who commonly utilize TFWs in their operations, one of the major concerns with an onsite audit is biosecurity. Producers limit those entering a facility or even the yard to prevent the spread of disease. Driving from farm to farm without cleaning a vehicle increases the risk of disease transmission.
While auditors can show up unannounced, they do not have the authority to enter the employers’ private dwellings without consent or a warrant. Inspectors can photograph or video anything on the property and ask to see relevant documents.
“They have empowered these guys (inspectors),” states Shields, “and that is a concern for producers.”
A farmer can face an audit if there’s reason to suspect they are not complying with program requirements, they have previously been found to be non-compliant, or through random selection. Being non-compliant can result in monetary penalties of up to $1 million or being banned from the program.
Producers using the program commit financially to bring workers up from Mexico and several other Caribbean countries. The employer is responsible for the cost of plane tickets and must provide housing for the employees.
The majority of employers are compliant. Of all the employers audited by Service Canada during the most recent fiscal year, less than 1 percent (30 out of 2800) were non-compliant.