STEPHEN MURDOCH VP Enterprise Canada
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has fueled many misconceptions about the seasonal labour program that helps farms put food on tables across Ontario. Topping the list is the false claim perpetuated by agriculture activists and trade unions that seasonal workers from overseas are not extended the same labour rights as Canadians.
In fact, international labourers hired to work at Ontario farms on a temporary basis through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) are entitled to the same benefits and protections as domestic workers and are protected by Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, the Agricultural Employees Protection Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. SAWP workers qualify for the same benefits, including as WSIB, certain Employment Insurance benefits, the provincial minimum wage and, like every other worker in Ontario during the pandemic, job protection if they have to take an unpaid leave because of COVID-19.
The argument can be made that workers hired on a temporary basis through SAWP receive additional rights and benefits not available to the domestic workforce. For example, SAWP, guaranties workers a minimum of an average of 40 hours per week for a set period of labour.
SAWP workers are provided 24-hour access to consular and/or liaison services while in Ontario should they need assistance navigating any issues or complications they may face while working here.
In addition, legislation in Ontario prohibits an employer from taking a passport from a worker, charging workers for employment costs or acting in reprisal in response to an employee complaint.
SAWP was established more than 50 years ago to respond to a critical shortage of available domestic agricultural workers and continues to serve the same role today. In a typical year, approximately 1,450 farms rely on the program to hire more than 20,000 seasonal workers from Mexico and the Caribbean as a supplement to local labour.