Fruit and vegetable growers say sweeping new travel restrictions are cutting off the flow of seasonal labour to Canadian farms, threatening to disrupt harvests as Ottawa bars foreign travellers in an attempt to contain the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said all international visitors to Canada — with the exception of Americans, diplomats and flight crews — will be refused at the airport beginning Wednesday.
Roughly 60,000 workers from countries including the Caribbean, Guatemala and Mexico arrive in Canada each year to seed and harvest crops of tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, cabbages and other fruits and vegetables. Farmers’ associations that send airplanes to transport the workers to Canada, were given until midnight Tuesday to bring the last group of 250 employees into the country, said Ken Forth, a broccoli grower and chair of the labour section of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association.
“We had four more planes scheduled for this week, but now they aren’t coming,” Forth said. “Broccoli has to be hand cut. I need an army of people to do that. From now until mid August I’m planting and harvesting because our retailers want a constant supply.”
About three quarters of the seasonal labourers supporting Canada’s fruit and vegetable growers come from outside the country. Though several thousand have already arrived and are working in greenhouses, the flow of incoming employees increases dramatically in late March, when seeding season begins. Indeed, workers should be arriving in large numbers each day over the next few weeks, said Forth.
“Those weeks are key because after the greenhouses start, the push is on for outdoor growers, people like me, who seed broccoli and cucumbers and peppers things like that,” said Forth. “We were slated in the next month to bring in 4,600 people and 13,600 in the next three months. Those people are very important.”
In an effort to curb panic buying, grocers have reassured the public that no shortages of essential food items exist. Canadians have been urged to buy no more food than they need for a two-week period. And growers’ associations say there is no immediate supply issue for fresh produce.
“We are not running out of food or essential supplies,” Loblaw chief executive Galen Weston wrote in an open letter to shoppers Monday. “Our supply chain and store teams are responding to the spikes in volume and quickly getting the most important items back on the shelf.”
The bare shelves throughout grocery stores are not due to a scarcity of food but to a disruption in a complicated just-in-time supply chain that relies on people buying in steady rates, said David Soberman, the Canadian National Chair in strategic marketing at the Rotman School of Management.
“Anytime there’s a disruption in those rates you either have a big buildup in inventory or you have a depletion in inventory,” Soberman said. “When you double or triple the rate at which something is taken out of the system, you end up with gaps. So the gaps may appear in grocery stores, at the wholesaler or even the manufacturer. Once an equilibrium is re-established things will get back to normal.”
Grocers are facing a ‘double whammy’ of labour concerns and a weaker Canadian dollar
Sylvain Charlebois, Dalhousie University
Weston, whose firm also controls the Shoppers Drug Mart chain, promised not to raise “a single price on any item” to take advantage of the COVID 19 crisis.
Keeping prices intact could be difficult, given the pressure on labour and the Canadian dollar, analysts say.
Local workers could bridge the gap left by seasonal employees, Soberman said. However, they would likely have to be paid more than foreign workers have traditionally earned, pushing up the price of the product.
As for imported goods: “If the cost of Italian cheese goes up because of what’s happening in Italy right now, they won’t be able to keep that price down,” he added.
Grocers are facing a “double whammy” of labour concerns and a weaker Canadian dollar that reduces their purchasing power, said Sylvain Charlebois, scientific director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.
“The Canadian dollar has been diving for six or seven days, that really hurts grocers,” he said. “And while the Canadian government made a decision on travel to keep us safe, they didn’t address the issue of foreign labour coming in to support the agricultural sector. This could be really problematic for them.”
Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said the issue had been raised with the federal government and she was hopeful that “we’ll find solutions quickly.”
“We at least need a skeleton crew to seed the crops,” she said. “And by the time of harvest, I’m hopeful a lot of these tensions will be reduced. A lot of farmers rely on these workers and they are very stressed.”
Agriculture Minister Marie Claude Bibeau has formed an intersectoral working group to follow up on the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on the agriculture and agri-food sector. In a statement, Bibeau said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has “strong measures in place to ensure the safety of Canada’s food supply.”