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The Toronto Star
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Canada’s mushroom growers are urging Ottawa to grant permanent residency to 870 migrant farmworkers to help the $1 billion industry fill current job vacancies and sustain growth.
Without a stable, skilled labour pool of migrant workers, the sector, which employs 4,330 people, could be in jeopardy, warned a report released Monday by Mushrooms Canada.
“Mushroom farms provide permanent, year-round jobs with a quality living wage in rural Canada and would like to welcome these skilled workers to Canada, so they have the option of staying and buying homes and building a life here as well,” said George Graham, president of Mushrooms Canada, whose members produce 134 tons of mushrooms a year.
“These workers are interested in working on farms and staying on farms. This is their dream job and we are fulfilling these workers’ dreams. They are our valued employees and part of the community, and we support and help them integrate in the local rural communities.”
The mushroom industry’s plea follows a recent Toronto Star series, The Hands that Pick Your Food, which found that Canada has been increasing its reliance on migrant workers in the agri-food sector and that the lack of access to permanent residency can expose workers to abusive and exploitative working conditions.
According to the Mushrooms Canada report, the sector, with 194 farms across the country, has a job vacancy rate of close to 9.7 per cent and migrant workers account for more than a quarter of the workforce. The report is based on research by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, a national group that addresses labour challenges of the sector.
Half of Canada’s mushroom production is based in Ontario, concentrated in Moose Creek, Stoney Creek, Hamilton, Burlington, Osgoode, Ashburn, Leamington, Kingsville and Wellington.
The United States and Japan are Canadian mushroom growers’ two top export markets. Last year alone, Canadian mushroom exports to the U.S. were valued at $194 million.
Migrant workers’ access to permanent residence is extremely limited because Canada’s immigration program selects prospective immigrants based on university education and professional designations — qualifications farmworkers lack.
A report by Statistics Canada this year found the rate of transition to permanent residence for seasonal agricultural workers was a dismal 3 per cent, compared to the average 21 per cent conversion rate among migrant workers overall.
Mushrooms Canada said the sector is uniquely situated in its use of foreign workers because mushroom farms run throughout the year and must harvest daily to avoid spoilage, making the demand for full-time workers constant.
The industry said mushroom farm jobs require highly developed skills including dexterity, speed and judgment regarding quality that are acquired through on-the-job training.
“There is no technology available to replace the human hand in mushroom harvesting,” said the 48-page report. “It takes three to 12 months to train an entry level harvester to become proficient in this role. Once a harvester achieves an experienced skill level, these employees are very valuable, a human capital asset to the farm and very difficult to replace.”
However, under the current revolving-door migrant farmworker program, employers must apply to Service Canada for labour market impact assessments for their foreign workers once every two years to renew their work status.
Each time, employers must advertise the jobs and file an application. Under the contract obligations of the migrant farmworker program, they must also subsidize housing, insurance, airfare and other transportation costs for the workers in most circumstances.
The report estimated it costs employers $8,470 to hire one migrant farmworker under the temporary foreign worker program and said easier access to permanent residency for workers would benefit the sector, migrants and rural communities.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has said he fears migrant farmworkers would not continue working in the agricultural sector after they became permanent residents.
According to the report, the industry has hired new immigrants to Canada, who stayed on the farms for an average of 11 years. When mushroom farmworkers had opportunities to immigrate in the 1980s, it added, those immigrant workers remained on their jobs for 20 years or longer.
Some 870 migrant workers would need their labour market impact assessment renewed in 2017 and 2018 unless a successful immigration pathway is found for them, noted the report.
“Both the workers and the growers are united in finding a successful and clear ‘pathway to permanency’ for immigration for these valued employees with skills and experience these farms need,” it concluded.
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