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Pilot program for temporary agricultural workers extended after rocky pandemic start

Two-year extension aimed to address labour shortages in the harvesting and livestock industry
Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Sean Fraser arrives to a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. Fraser says the government will expand a pilot project to attract more temporary foreign workers to accept jobs in Canada’s agricultural industry for another two years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Canada will expand a pilot project to attract more temporary foreign workers to jobs in Canada’s agricultural industry for another two years after the pandemic meant it got off to a slow start, the immigration minister announced Monday.

The government launched the agri-food pilot three years ago to offer temporary workers in the sector a pathway to permanent residency in Canada.

It was due to end later this month but Fraser says it will run until 2025.

The aim of the program is to address labour shortages in the harvesting and livestock industry, Fraser said.

“The reality is if we don’t continue to develop a workforce that’s going to allow the agricultural and agri-food sectors to continue to produce, we’re going to be facing certain challenges when it comes to food security,” he said.

The new timelines will allow the government “to continue to test out the pilot, which experienced certain challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Fraser said at a press conference at a meat-packing facility about one hour east of Ottawa.

The pandemic made it more difficult for people to travel and created greater opportunities for workers to be exploited.

In 2021, auditor general Karen Hogan found the federal government did a poor job of keeping tabs on how well employers were protecting their staff during the pandemic.

Fraser said the new phase of the pilot will include better protections for workers.

“There’s a real challenge that workers have if they are in an exploitive or abusive situation,” Fraser said, because the worker’s status in Canada is tied directly to their employer.

Several years ago the government offered open work permits to help people escape such abusive situations.

The new pilot will allow workers who have been using those open work permits to put their job experience toward their application for the pilot, which would make them eligible for permanent status in Canada.

Another new rule would allow the worker’s union to attest to their work experience, instead of relying solely on the employer.

“We have heard some stories about applicants who won’t have an employer co-operate, because an employer doesn’t want them to be on a pathway to permanent residency for fear they may pursue other opportunities,” Fraser said.

The new iteration of the pilot will also give family members of workers who make it into the program will be given open work permits so they can earn a living while they’re in Canada.

The program is open to workers in meat product manufacturing, animal production and those working in greenhouses, nurseries and the production of flowers and ornamental plants.

The government plans to lift the cap on the number of applicants for certain kinds of jobs, and expects 2,750 of those applications will be processed per year.

—Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

READ MORE: Temporary foreign workers hit record levels in B.C.