This is the second of two pieces First Policy Response is publishing this week in collaboration with the Ryerson Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration and its Pandemic Borders webinar series. You can read the first piece here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that among the truly “essential” workers are low-skilled temporary migrant workers: those who find it nearly impossible to access permanent residency, and later, citizenship. What can the pandemic experience tell us about immigration policy, and how can immigration be governed more effectively for low-skilled migrant workers during this extraordinary time?

The impact of the pandemic border closures on temporary foreign workers engaged in Canada’s farms and fish plants has received wide media coverage. Concerns have mounted about the consequences of not admitting the annual 60,000 seasonal agricultural workers, whose invaluable labour contributes to the food supply that feeds Canadians. While the government has encouraged the growing number of Canadians left unemployed because of COVID-19 to work in the agriculture and agri-food sector, these jobs are often avoided by citizens at home.

On March 21, the Canadian government announced that seasonal agricultural workers, fish and seafood workers, caregivers and all other temporary foreign workers providing essential services would be exempt from restrictions placed on individuals travelling to Canada. Nevertheless, these exempt temporary foreign workers must undergo health screening before they arrive in Canada and must then isolate for 14 days upon arrival.

While the federal government has offered farmers $50 million to ensure that Temporary Foreign Workers are living in social distance (read: not in the otherwise cramped settings they are accustomed to) and being paid, outbreaks have been reported among migrant workers across the country. The government’s willingness to accept low-skill labourers, and even go the extra mile to find appropriate public-health solutions for their arrival – chartered flights with few passengers sitting at safe distance, assistance with their accommodation and self-isolation – does not reveal some new sensitivity about the living or working conditions of these temporary foreign workers. Rather, it has been a knee-jerk reaction to the fear of the agriculture and food processing industry chain breaking down, leaving supermarkets in short supply and harvests wasted. The question that arises is whether this lesson from the pandemic can help shape more sustainable immigration policy for such essential work.

There are reasons for skepticism here. On May 15, the Canadian government launched an Agri-food Immigration Pilot that allows migrant workers in agriculture to apply for permanent residency. However, the program has been criticized as being inaccessible: it accepts only 2,750 applicants and family members a year and expires in May 2023. And a report by Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, published on June 8, notes that the aforementioned better housing conditions for workers were only available during their quarantine and significantly worsened as soon as the two-week period was finished. The quarantine gave employers an excuse to restrict workers’ mobility, and many workers reported incidents of intimidation and outright racism. In addition, the fact that labour was in short supply led to available labourers working for weeks without a day off. Given their precarious employment and migration status as seasonal workers, they were unable to claim overtime, breaks, days off or other such rights that are normally guaranteed for workers in Canada.

The pandemic brings into focus the wider dynamics of the agri-food sector in North America and in Europe, which sees similar migration and farm-work dynamics. Agriculture is a sector characterized by difficult working conditions, low prestige and low pay. It is a sector where work is mainly seasonal and requires a supply-and-demand mechanism that is ultra-flexible. Workers need to be available on call, can be easily dismissed, work under adverse conditions, and have little chance of upwards mobility.

Today, agriculture work is also characterized by intensive pressures to keep production costs low in order to be competitive. Large corporations in the retail and agri-food sectors push for low prices to maximize their own benefits and, given the large volume of products that they can absorb, they can impose their conditions on producers. Producers are faced with some costs that are irreducible, such as water, energy, fertilizers, seeds and feed, as well as the increasing need for mechanization. Thus, squeezing the cost of labour by employing migrants with precarious status appears to be almost a necessary choice, particularly for smaller producers.


What can Canada do?

While exploitation of migrant farmworkers is an international issue, Canada has an opportunity to lead by example. Canadian policymakers (like their European counterparts) should consider  ways in which agricultural policy and migration policy can work hand-in-hand with a view to promoting better working and living conditions for migrant farmworkers, and with a clear prospect for long-term citizenship status for those who wish to remain at their working destination.

In other temporary worker streams, including caregiving, Canadian policy has given migrants more rights, protections and pathways to citizenship. Policymakers should begin by looking at how these conditions can be expanded and adapted for temporary agriculture workers. Here are some other recommendations:

  • More intensive inspections and verification of contracts, working conditions, accommodation and actual pay. It is not sufficient to rely on whistleblowing, as migrant workers are often unclear about their rights, and even when they are clear, they are not sure who to approach. Continuous monitoring and ad hoc inspections need to be enforced.
  • Extending the provisions that as of 2014 have allowed for caregivers to change employers to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in agriculture.
  • Intensifying controls of large retailers and agri-food businesses. A corporate responsibility policy is important here – supermarket chains could be pushed to use ethical suppliers and to check subcontractors and producers.
  • While the Agri-food Migrant Pilot is a welcome initiative, it would accept only a tiny number of the workers who come to Canada every year under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Instead, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in agriculture could draw from the program for caregivers in regards to the transition to permanent residency and family reunification. After a certain amount of time – for instance, four seasons in four consecutive years – workers should have preferential access to permanent residency, as caregivers do after 24 months of employment. This is in line also with the general reform of the program in 2016 that removed the four years in, four years out rule.
  • Following from the above, Canada should consider introducing a system for temporary foreign workers to bridge the gap between the expiration of their current work permit and a final decision on their application for permanent residence, similar to the system introduced for multiple other streams.

As Connie Sorio argues, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken low-skilled temporary foreign workers “from disposable to indispensable.” As Canadians express an interest in moving away from how things used to be, the Government of Canada should seriously consider the role that low-skilled temporary foreign workers play in ensuring Canadians are fed and taken care of, and afford these individuals the same privileges as those workers deemed highly-skilled.


Lucia Nalbandian is a master’s student in the Public Policy and Administration Program at Ryerson University. Anna Triandafyllidou is the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration at Ryerson University.