Farmer-owned nonprofit took over program from government in 1984

By CAROL RYAN DUMAS

Capital Press

Much like the United States, Canada's agricultural community depends on foreign seasonal workers to get its crops harvested.

But while U.S. farmers have found the H-2A guestworker visa program burdensome and bureaucratic, Canadian growers are holding up a program there that they say is efficient and successful.

Administered by Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, a farmer-owned nonprofit, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program links approximately 16,000 foreign workers with about 1,500 farms in Ontario and Atlantic Canada each year.

The program supplies temporary workers under the Commonwealth Caribbean/Mexico Seasonal Workers Program to harvest fruits, vegetables and nursery commodities. It benefits farmers and the workers and creates two permanent Canadian jobs for every foreign worker employed, said Ken Forth, president of FARMS.

Farmers must fill out an application and get government approval for work visas, but the system isn't bogged down by red tape. The approval process takes as little as 24 hours and as much as only a couple of days, Forth said.

FARMS maintains relationships with prime ministers and ministries of labor in the countries in the program, and each country has an established recruitment process. In addition, those countries appoint their own agents in Canada to ensure the smooth functioning of the program.

The workers have a support team in Canada to meet them, get them to where they're going and assist if any problems arise on the job, he said.

"It's pretty seamless," he said.

The H-2A program in the United States mirrors Canada's program, which began in 1966. Canadian farmers also suffered the frustration U.S. farmers still face with the foreign worker program, but they convinced their government to make the program work.

In 1984, the government decided it didn't want to administer the program anymore and FARMS took on the challenge, streamlining the program and successfully filling Canadian farmers' needs for temporary workers for the past 28 years, he said.

The real strength of the program is the support and involvement provided to workers by their native countries, he said.

"People are pretty amazed at what this program does. Governments and agricultural organizations around the world are looking at this program as a model," Forth said.

Workers are coming and going Jan. 1 through Dec. 15. They are not allowed to stay longer than eight months, and the average worker stays 22 weeks, he said.

Workers are paid a set hourly wage -- currently $10.25 for fruit and vegetable workers -- and are provided healthcare coverage. They are subject to regular payroll deductions for taxes, employment insurance, and contributions to the Canada Pension Plan, from which they can draw when they retire.

Employers provide inspected housing and pay the visa fee and are initially responsible for travel costs, of which they can recover a percentage through payroll deductions.

Prior to arriving the workers must undergo medical exams and criminal background checks.

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