Is Farm Labour Exempt From Ontario Works Rules?
As sometimes happens with monthly publications, events overtake the original declarations. Such is the case here with the post deadline emergence of evidence that some regional farms did not offer proper care to their seasonal workers, contributing to a heart-rending outbreak of COVID-19. What the pandemic wrought on this industry was unpredictable, leaving us to wonder why anyone would want to work on a farm. Canadians and offshore workers alike. We are hopeful that reform is on the way.
Invariably during times of economic strife and widespread unemployment in our region, the call goes out to send the unemployed to work in the greenhouses and vegetable and fruit fields around Kingsville and Leamington.
There were various media accounts this spring about migrant workers from Mexico and Jamaica having difficulty crossing the U.S. border due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Thankfully, after government intervention, they were allowed to enter the country, and after 14 day quarantines, they were able to harvest the crops of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers etc. and avert financial disaster for farm and greenhouse owners.
There are an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 migrant workers in Essex County, according to Joseph Sbrocchi, General Manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.
The media attention on the crisis prompted some commentators to question why unemployed Ontarians and Canadians apparently won’t do this kind of work.
Ontario Works regulations say jobless people must actively seek work in order to continue to receive social assistance benefits.
Is there an unwritten rule exempting farm work from that requirement? Our guardians of the public purse didn’t want to touch that hot potato with a 10-foot pole.
I left a message for Jelena Payne, City of Windsor’s Commissioner of Community Development and Health Services, requesting a phone interview. Payne’s Assistant called me back and said I needed to pose any questions to the communications branch of Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services.
A polite young man named Daniel Schultz from that department asked me to send him the questions. After an email exchange that I felt didn’t answer my core question, I decided to get blunt.
“Is there ever the occasion when a social assistance recipient is cut off benefits because he or she is able-bodied and refuses to seek a job, or take a job, in a greenhouse or in a vegetable or fruit field in Ontario?”
Here is Schultz’s roundabout reply . . .“For the purposes of eligibility for Ontario Works, adults receiving social assistance are required to participate in employment assistance activities to help them find, prepare for and keep a job. These activities are determined on an individual basis between a client and their caseworker and may include job search, employment placement and job retention services, and access to basic education. Additionally, recipients are required to make reasonable efforts to accept and maintain full-time, part-time, or casual employment if they are physically capable, for the purposes of eligibility.”
Next I called Sbrocchi, who is based in Leamington. Historcally, Ontarians have not wanted to do seasonal work,” he understated.
When I asked him if farm workers are exempt from Ontario Works eligibility rules, he quipped: “You’ll have to ask the government that.” When I told him I already did so, he replied: “The response of Canadians to come forward looking for agricultural jobs is disappointing. Hopefully people will come around, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
There are starkly different points of view on this issue. The old school chalks it up to a culture that is too soft, catering to a lazy younger generation with an aversion to hard labour, or labour of any kind.In researching this topic, I heard tales about Canadians showing up to work in a field in the morning and leaving at noon, not even bothering to come back to pick up their pay. Unreliable conduct like that can be disastrous for farmers working on a limited timeline to successfully harvest their crops.
In this pandemic era, why would an unemployed person take a job on a farm when he/she can sit at home and collect $2,000 a month (this was allowed during a certain time frame) from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
On the other hand, in normal times, a single person on social assistance in Ontario is paid only $656 a month. A couple with two children gets $1,173. The intent of Ontario Works is to help residents find employment, develop job skills and get financial help with necessities while they look for work.
A temporary worker in Ontario receives a minimum wage of $14 an hour, with free lodging and one trip into town a week. Sbrocchi says migrants, many of whom have been coming to Essex County for decades, push hard to work 55 hours a week or more in our greenhouses or fields.
He tells the story of a conversation he had with one Mexican worker recently, who has been coming back for nine years to help feed his family back home and send his son to law school.
“He boasted that he makes more money working here for eight months of the year than his son earns as a lawyer for a full year in Mexico City,” Sbrocchi informed me.
The minimum wage in Mexico, which had a 20 percent boost in 2020, is $11.95 CAN a day — not an hour.
“I’d love to see more Canadians pursue job opportunities in agriculture,” says Justin Falconer, CEO of Workforce WindsorEssex, a workforce and community development board whose mission is to lead regional employment and community planning for the development of a strong and sustainable workforce.
The non-profit agency, with core funding from the provincial government, has a job match board that fluctuates hourly. On May 27, 2020, of 956 jobs available for unskilled workers, 112, or 11.7 percent, were for greenhouse workers.
Farm operators are obliged by federal law to advertise job openings for domestic job seekers in newspapers, or they can’t employ foreign workers. Sadly, there are precious few local applicants.
Falconer and Sbrocchi, as part of their mandate to attract domestic workers, are trying to upgrade the image of farm workers.
“There’s a stigma attached to the word migrants,” states Sbrocchi, who has taken to calling them “guest workers”.
There is a skill set required to do farm work, he adds, drawing a comparison to a busy coffee shop worker who has learned how to efficiently pour a cup of coffee.
“The picking and packing jobs are entry level jobs and provide a tremendous opportunity to learn the industry on the ground floor and have an opportunity for advancement into jobs such as forklift driver, inspecting, purchasing, marketing and supervisor,” says Falconer. “Training is also available from the employer.”
The working conditions in greenhouses can actually be quite pleasant, with bright sunlight and controlled temperatures.
The image of the agriculture industry suffered a blow this spring with a COVID-19 outbreak and the deaths of young migrant workers employed in the county. As tragic as this is, it is not surprising given the communal setting of the temporary worker bunkhouses.
Farm operators are required to provide infected employees with places to isolate in off-site housing such as hotels, and keep track of information made available to the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.
Sbrocchi insists the bunkhouses of the biggest operators are state of the art facilities and subject to the oversight of six different federal departments.
“The industry is evolving and changing” says Falconer, who expresses hope that the future will see more Canadians in these jobs.
Everything is possible in this new pandemic age, including even that.