Lives of seasonal farm workers still in limbo because of pandemic
SIMCOE, ONT. -- As he stands with his hands inside his sweater pockets, it is clear that Akole Moses wasn’t prepared for the cold Canadian winter.
The seasonal migrant worker from Trinidad and Tobago did not anticipate remaining in the country past November.
“As a bread winner, you do it for your family to get bread on the table, it’s a sacrifice, it’s a job, and you do it so they don’t have to go through the hardship,” said Moses.
Moses has been self-isolating inside a hotel for the past two weeks, anxiously waiting to fly back home to see his five daughters.
“Right now in this world, family is most important,” says Moses, who by flying back home Friday, is risking not being able to return in the spring.
Moses is one of the nearly 100 seasonal agricultural workers at Schuyler Farms Ltd. in Simcoe, many of whom became stranded in Ontario due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The workers, or at least most of them, signed a document with the Trinidadian government that said that if their border was closed, that they wouldn’t be able to get back right away,” said Ken Forth, chair of the Labour Section of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association
As a result of the border closure, the Canadian government allowed migrant workers to extend their work visas, or change to another program that would let them stay and work in the country for up to two years.
“We just want to work together and get the best solution for everybody, and certainly respect if somebody wants to stay or if somebody wants to go home,” says Brett Schuyler, owner of Schuyler Farms Ltd.
Don Coker, a Schuyler Farms Ltd. migrant worker, speaks from Simcoe, Ont. on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. (Reta Ismail / CTV News)
Don Coker, who has been working for Schuyler Farms for the past 18 seasons, has opted to stay.
“I use this as kind of a career for me, I keep working on this opportunity. With this pandemic, we’re not sure what we’re going to expect, there was a challenge to come up here last year.”
There will likely be challenges returning in the spring, as the federal government now requires a negative COVID-19 test result before the employees can fly back to Canada.
That can be a hefty cost for the migrant workers – something that the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association is trying to fight.
“If you had all those workers disappear tomorrow, 40,000 or 50,000 people in Ontario would also lose their job, because we don’t need equipment operators, we don’t need truck drivers to haul produce that we cannot produce,” stresses Forth.
“Essentially without this program, the fruit and vegetable industry wouldn’t be the industry it certainly is today.”