Emilio Ramirez Agudo was planning to return to New Brunswick this week to work on a fruit and vegetable farm.
He wasn’t expecting to lose his job to the premier.
In his hometown in southern Mexico, he earns about $ 15 a day selling bananas and sweet potatoes. Fewer tourists this year means he’s earning even less.
But Agudo found out along with Canadian farmers last Tuesday that New Brunswick would be the only province in the country to block entry to temporary foreign workers.
Premier Blaine Higgs said he made the decision out of concern over the risk of new COVID-19 cases.
Instead, the premier himself has offered to step up and do the job.
“I don’t know if anyone would volunteer to take me or not, but I’m a country boy at heart, no stranger to a tractor … I think we all just need to do our part,” Higgs, 66, told reporters Monday.
The premier was responding to criticism from farmers that the last-minute decision leaves them scrambling to hire and train workers as the agricultural season is already underway.
The coastal province has a population of less than 800,000 people, and fish farming is a major economic contributor, while rural residents partly rely on produce from local farms.
Rébeka Frazer-Chiasson, president of the National Farmers Union in New Brunswick, laughed at first when she heard about the premier’s offer.
But after Higgs’ office confirmed to the Telegraph-Journal that his intention to help on a farm was sincere, Frazer-Chiasson thinks it would be a good idea.
“He should try it out, definitely. It might change our whole government’s perspective on agriculture and the value we give to agriculture,” she told the Star.
“But my gosh, what an insult to people who have put years and years into the profession and are experienced and qualified agricultural workers.”
Frazer-Chiasson’s farm only employs locals, but for several dozen larger farms in the province, foreign workers are often the most experienced staff members.
“The issue isn’t whether we have enough Canadians who are willing to work. It’s the problem of farmers needing to train new people from scratch,” said the union president, who urged Higgs to explore other strategies to keep communities safe from COVID-19.
The premier’s office wasn’t available to respond to the Star’s questions before publication time.
In an email written in Spanish, Agudo said that for him and other workers from Mexico, their work in Canada is “muy importante.”
“My family depends on the income I make. We will just have to wait and continue working here (in Mexico),” he wrote.
The 27-year-old would typically earn about $ 600 a week after taxes and deductions for lodging for the six months he works for the Strawberry Hill Farm in Pembroke, N.B., while his wife and son stay at home.
According to a recent report by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council, in 2017 the Canadian agricultural workforce benefited from 59,500 international workers through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
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Unfilled job vacancies went from 76,000 to 16,500 that year. Workers with the programs must earn at least minimum wage in each province.
Frazer-Chiasson said that while the programs are important, there’s room for improvement.
During their time in Canada, many farm labourers live in work camps, often in trailers or other cramped accommodations that do not permit the kind of social-distancing health experts say is necessary to limit the spread of viruses.
The COVID-19 pandemic should inspire changes, Frazer-Chiasson said, including higher standards for accommodations and provisions allowing farm workers to change employers if they aren’t satisfied with conditions.
Tim Livingstone, co-owner of Strawberry Hill Farm, told the Star he had prepared additional housing and another vehicle so his returning workers could comply with physical distancing and quarantine rules.
Livingstone’s family is close with their staff from Mexico, including Agudo. He even visited them in their hometowns near Oaxaca in February.
“It was an unforgettable experience to spend days with their families and to climb a mountain with them and see their beautiful country. We’ll certainly miss them this year,” Livingstone said.
The farmer said he was grateful to receive offers to help within the community, but found himself fielding job applications from teenagers with no experience. He said the time and cost of additional training will likely make it difficult to turn a profit from their fruit and vegetable harvest this year.
Farmers across the country had earlier warned that migrant workers are critical to the agriculture industry and their absence could have “tremendous” consequences on food production, including food prices at the grocery store.
Early on in the pandemic, the agricultural sector lobbied Ottawa to allow migrant workers through the travel ban, which it did in late March. However, farmhands will have to isolate themselves for 14 days, now standard protocol for any Canadian arriving from abroad.
Higgs on Monday pointed out that British Columbia has confirmed four new cases of COVID-19 among temporary foreign workers who entered the country in recent weeks.
Last month, industry associations said an outbreak among migrant farm workers in a nursery in West Kelowna, B.C., should serve as a wake-up call for farmers to take every measure possible to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $ 252 million in federal aid for the agriculture sector, including $ 77 million earmarked to keep workers in the food processing industry safe.
But Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said the sector is already facing $ 2.6 billion in losses to date, and while they don’t expect the federal government to make up all of that, they believe there should be more aid to help the sector recover.
“We need to make sure that our domestic food supply is robust,” she said, adding that many businesses in the agriculture sector don’t qualify for the other COVID-19 aid programs, such as the $ 40,000 business loan available from the federal government.
With files from Rosa Saba and Grant LaFleche