April 22, 2021
Several weeks ago I had a question about our foreign professional help. I have included both the question and my reply here followed by an explanation/ description of how we hire and employ our international professionals.
"The understanding by the general public is that the international workers on farms are paid less than minimum wage. Is this true for Nova Scotian farms? And that the Canadian workers would be getting minimum wage (or would they be getting less than min. wage?)”
"The international workers get minimum wage, a free place to stay, transportation, we pay for a minimum of half of their travel costs and, on our farm, their food is about half paid because we grow so many types of vegetables that they are free to take as they need.(and that is the case on many farms, the guys get whatever bonuses the farmers can throw their way). We also make the occasional deal with other farms or businesses when we can. For example; a neighbouring farm produces eggs but a certain percentage are cosmetically challenged so we get them for the guys by trading for some veggies and now the guys have limitless amounts of free eggs; and the eggs are no longer wasted.
The entire programme (called SAWP, Seasonal Agricultural Worker Programme) is very strictly regulated by the federal government. There are rules for everything right down to bedroom size, how many and what size of refrigerator is needed, break times, minimum number of hours work we have to guarantee them, the bunkhouses are inspected every year for safety and decency, etc etc. Every imaginable thing is monitored. The overall cost to hire international workers is minimum wage plus about $5 per hour. It’s not cheap but it’s dependable and, so far, a workable solution to a labour shortage that would otherwise decimate the industry.
Canadian workers would also get minimum wage plus, so at face value they are more economical to hire. But we can’t get even 10% of the number of people we would need and they are completely new to farming in almost every case (and therefore very inefficient) so the majority are a direct loss because they can’t accomplish enough to cover their wages. Our international workers come year after year and are nothing less than professionals at what they do. The other problem is that many Canadian employees come and go on a whim so you never know from one day to the next if you have a labour force. That doesn’t work from a business perspective and it is extremely stressful for us.
I hope this gives you a better perspective on the reality of the situation. Google SAWP and start digging; there is a pile of information and reams of red tape:-(
So……we hire our guys mostly through a federally administered programme called SAWP but the last couple of years we have three guys here under a different programme called AgStream.
To say that these programmes are extremely tightly regulated is no exaggeration I would say that Suzanne works for the equivalent of a full month of each year just to administer all of the demands the programmes require of us.
SAWP. Seasonal Agricultural Worker Programme. Officially this programme is to source “unskilled labour” (which, as most of you know, really burns me because the people calling it unskilled don’t have a clue and we would starve if they had to fill these positions) Each work term is an eight month maximum. There are to be no SAWP workers in Canada between December 15 and January 15 each year, no exceptions. The good thing is that the guys are all home with their families over the holidays but it does kind of wreck the holidays for some farmers because we are trying to keep everything rolling with way too few employees. We sent our Jamaican guys home an extra week earlier last year so they could be out of quarantine before Christmas. I would consider quarantine over Christmas as cruel and unusual punishment. Luckily there was no quarantine in Mexico (not sure how wise that was) so we still had ample crew up until December 15th.
AgStream: This programme works on a two year work VISA. The guys can come and go as they please during the two years and then renew the VISA if they want to continue. In 2020 we had two guys on AgStream; namely Teban and Leon. We were very lucky that they stayed until just a couple of days before Christmas. Teban was back just a couple of weeks later and Leon came back the first of February and was able to resume work around mid-February. Teban’s younger brother is also now here under the AgStream programme. The reason both brothers aren’t here under the SAWP programme is that the Mexican government will allow only married men to work in Canada under the SAWP programme. There is no such stipulation under the AgStream programme.
Before we can apply for or hire anyone under either programme we need to complete an LMIA . Labour Market Impact Assessment. We also have to register yearly with the government of Nova Scotia for a permit to allow us to bring in help.
Basically we have to prove yearly that we are only bringing in workers to fill positions that would otherwise not be filled by a willing Canadian.
This requires that we post a minimum of two job ads for two weeks, six months in advance of when we need the help. One ad has to be posted on the Service (oxymoron) Canada website and another on another approved site. The job ads have to state the number of positions available, the wages being offered, the specific type of work, hours per week, etc, etc. We are then held to those specifications while employing anyone we bring from outside of Canada. We are then required to seriously consider and hire any Canadian that appears to have the ability and motivation to do the job. Whatever the shortfall in employee numbers is we can hire from one of several countries that we have agreements with including Jamaica and Mexico. There are big fines and/or we can be banned from programme if we deviate from the described work or wages in the job ad. A couple of years ago a coal mine operating under a programme very similar to SAWP was fined (about $250K) for giving their foreign help a raise/ bonus for a job well done. The problem was that they were required to repost the job with higher wages to see if Canadians wanted it first. Never mind the fact that the Canadians likely would never have earned the raise or bonus in the first place. I don’t know any more details from that case but I would imagine that mine was banned from the programme for a number of years if not permanently. If, as a farm, we were to be fined, or banned from the SAWP programme for even a year, we are done, period. We would have to sell the farm or wait for creditors to take it. Believe me when I say we don’t screw with it and would gladly hire Canadians instead if they could do the job just to get out from under the weight of that type of oversight and punitive threat. The ruthless nature of the government regulators is a constant source of additional stress; not nice to live with.
In Nova Scotia each bunkhouse has to be inspected yearly by the county. This is mainly for the purpose of fire safety and other safety related issues. It also includes making sure there are enough stoves, microwaves, refrigerators, bathrooms, toilets, washing machines, etc. and making sure every bedroom has a certain square footage per person. We like to have as few people per bedroom as possible and a lot of our guys have their own bedroom. That’s not only a point of decency for our workers, it’s good management, because after working together all day they will rest better if they can get a bit of privacy. Internet is now a necessity so we now have extra internet accounts to keep everyone connected to the outside world. It used to be cable TV but that is now just a memory; I swear that Jamaicans are the most knowledgeable people on social media in the world.
We also do yearly water tests in each of the bunkhouses to be sure the weather source is clean.
We are frequently audited on various things. It seems to be the governments way of creating new “good” jobs. I hate when money is taken from me and then used to hire more people to harass me. Two years ago we were audited by HRDC. It involved interviewing selected employees and an inspection of working and housing conditions. Audits always seem to include what I would call leading questions. I don’t know very much about what is asked of our employees because we aren’t allowed to be there when they are interviewed, fair enough. But some of my guys have told me about their experience. For example; "how do you get to Town?" Answer: "We drive one of the Elmridge vans." Counter question;" Is that OK with you?" Huh?…. (In my guy’s head) "How could it be a problem to drive to town?” Well; apparently the rules state that we, the employer, have to give them at least one ride to town each week (our guys are free to take a vehicle any time they want, within reason, and they are pretty good about it) but if one of them is driving said van we need to pay that guy for the time he is in town. Ridiculous! And our guys agree it makes no sense. They prefer to drive themselves on their own schedule, of course.
So on the same “visit” while inspecting New Mexico (that’s what we call one of our properties because it is 100% populated by Mexicans) the inspector decided there weren’t enough bureaus in one room for their liking but we could avoid getting written up and possibly fined if we were to immediately put another bureau in the room. Suzanne called me to say that all of my clothes got dumped on the floor in our room (and stayed there for months) because the bureau went down the road to New Mexico. Welcome to being a farmer in Canada.
As a side note, I am no longer allowed to deal with HRDC, Oxymoron Canada, and especially not Nova Scotia motor vehicles because I have a habit of telling them what I think…..last time I was at the DMV I was “asked" to leave. I was was there with Jose, one of the most ambitious, hardest working people I have ever met, to try to have him write the test for his beginners licence. He has had a valid licence in Mexico for twenty years but we were told by DMV that wasn’t good enough and the only way he (or any of our other guys) would be allowed to drive in Nova Scotia would be to have a valid NS drivers licence. Ok. Fine. We can do that. This was his third attempt to write, having been turned away twice already because they said his ID wasn’t good enough. So this time we were prepared. We had a Mexican passport, a Mexican drivers licence and a general Mexican ID; all with photos. We had also gone to our lawyer to have all of the ID’s notarized. On top of that I had a Spanish speaking friend along in case we required any translation, although I have always been able to communicate well enough with Jose; and my Spanish is pretty primitive. The examiner hadn’t even fully flipped though the various types of ID and proclaimed “not good enough”. For those of you who know me well you can well imagine what followed. There were no threats as such, physical or otherwise. But there was a very quick summary of what we were really trying to accomplish by getting this very dangerous looking Mexican a licence to kill (it had to be on the level of 007 the way they were acting) in the form of a beginners licence. I was in the midst of thanking him from protecting our country from prosperity and food security at which time I was asked to leave or “he would take measures”. I was more than ready to leave! That was three years ago and I haven’t been back since. Thankfully suzanne does the DMV dirty work for us. That wasn’t an isolated incident and, strangely enough, the guy suddenly decided on early retirement about a year later.
To really top all of that off; we were told repeatedly by Access NS that an international licence was only good for three months and there were no exceptions which is the reason we spent countless hours and dollars to try to get NS licences for our guys. Just by chance, I was talking to some other farmers during a “zoom "meeting and the subject of licensing came up. I enquired as to how they were dealing with it because it was leaving us woefully short on drivers. The answer: “that’s easy, just get them international permits”. My response “that’s not sufficient, DMV has told us so on multiple occasions”. After the meeting I mentioned it to Suzanne and she started digging. And if it’s somewhere in or on the web she can find it. An hour later she uncovered an old government act dated 1989 stating that an international licence is OK for SAWP employees…..Thanks DMV, glad you know your stuff.
When the guys are paid weekly they get all of the same deductions that a Canadian employee would get. They are paid vacation pay. They pay into CPP and have the option of applying to get it all back or to leave it and start receiving cheques from the Canadian government when they turn 65. They pay income tax just like you or I. They pay into EI but are not eligible to collect because they are seasonal and are out of the country when not working but the Canadian government came up with what I consider a really good compromise. They are eligible to claim paternity leave for the months they are home if their wife has had baby within the last twelve months. We also pay into WCB (Workers Compensation Board) on their behalf. So we gain no financial remuneration advantages compared to Canadian employees.
Another safety for the guys is that there is a hotline for them to call if they are having issues with their employers. We received an email from the federal government recently saying that the hotline has been beefed up this year to give workers every opportunity to report and wrong doings by their employers. That is, no doubt, a reaction to the negative scrutiny that the SAWP programme has received in the last year with the onset of our new COVID world. I have watched several documentary type reports that may have a bit of truth behind them but, as someone inside of the industry, I can tell you were more about sensationalizing and improving ratings than telling the truth. The fact is that with so many farms involved from coast to coast and more than 60,000 foreign professionals arriving each year there are bound to be bad employers, dishonest or opportunistic employees and conflicts. That’s just the way life is. All I can say is that we, at Elmridge, very much appreciate our guys and do the best we can for them, as do the very vast majority of farmers in this province and across Canada. Unfortunately it has become a bit of a political topic and it’s rare to see anything positive come from political optics.
As always keep eating your veggies!