The world is currently experiencing a crisis of great breadth and depth. The current COVID-19 pandemic has generated distress in many of the structures we used to take for granted; no doubt, one of the most critical systems we rely upon is the food supply.
The priority of all governments has been to save lives by strengthening health systems and ensuring the basic needs of the population. In some cases, mobility across international borders has also been limited to that effect. Canada adopted such restrictions on March 18th, allowing for some exceptions related to workers considered essential. In order to avoid the negative impact in the food production and supply of Canada, the survival of many individual producers as well as the viability of the agricultural sector, temporary foreign workers were added to this exception.
Mexico has sustained policies grounded on the principle of solidarity during the COVID-19 pandemic, both domestically and internationally. In line with this principle, Mexico decided to continue the operation of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) with Canada, under special conditions, to guarantee the health and well-being of the workers.
Since 1974, Mexico has maintained this mobility program with Canada which has proven crucial not only to the viability of the 2,300 participating farms, but of the overall food supply chain. Individuals come to work for periods of up to eight months per year in farms located across all provinces. Last year alone, over twenty-seven thousand Mexican workers arrived in Canada.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2018, temporary foreign workers in the agriculture industry fulfilled 55,000 jobs accounting for 20 percent of total employment in the agriculture sector. The figures are even more relevant in the horticulture field -which includes fruits and vegetables that most Canadians enjoy daily- where close to 85% of the jobs are performed by temporary foreign workers.
In this context, it was understandable that after the ban on international travel was imposed, farmers raised concern about the perils to their industry and urged the government to exempt SAWP workers. After an agreement was reached between industry and government, they turned to Mexico for assistance in restarting the previously ongoing collaboration.
Thanks to the excellent dialogue between Mexico and Canada, and to the leadership of the Ministers of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Employment, and Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, we reached an agreement that permits Canadian food producers to find experienced workers through the SAWP program, while putting in place new measures to protect their health and labour rights in these unprecedented circumstances.
Within a few days of our understanding, workers began to arrive. The Government of Mexico launched a substantial effort to screen, recruit and organize the arrival of over 9,000 workers in a three-week period, even under work-from-home orders for all government officials involved in the program. Currently, there are 14,000 workers for the 2020 season, and this figure may increase contingent upon the sanitary conditions in Mexico and Canada.
As we reflect on the many lessons brought about by the pandemic, it is important to underscore that the relationship Mexico has forged with Canada should be seen through a lens of solidarity and cooperation.
Mexicans constitute the largest group of temporary foreign workers in Canadian agriculture; their contribution is vital in sustaining Canada’s farm sector, and thereby its food security. They are making a difference for thousands of Canadian farms, which are no longer walking the thin line between economic collapse and survival.
The journey for the agricultural workers is not an easy one; all of them are now thousands of kilometres away from home, but they are proud of their contribution in helping to put food on the table of Canadian homes.
Negotiations undertaken to move forward with the SAWP in challenging times are a testament to the strength of the relationship between Mexico and Canada. The positive results demonstrate that we are ready to step up our efforts. We should take the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and strive for a new and more modern mobility scheme that responds to labour markets in both countries.
As human mobility awakens to a new post-pandemic reality, our ability to find common ground and work together in the worst of times should encourage us to look forward to the best of times that lay ahead.
Juan Jose Gomez Camacho is Mexico’s ambassador to Canada.
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