Technological innovations have offered great efficiencies within agriculture – but that has by no means removed the critical need for skilled manual labour in each season’s successful crop and harvest. The current growing season is being met with unprecedented labour challenges that compound the already existing industry strain that reoccurs annually.

Global food production, as it currently stands, is upheld by razor-thin profit margins that keep a firm pressure on farms of all sizes to perform at maximum productivity through all circumstances. Reliance on temporary, yet highly-skilled manual labourers is the norm; and the precarity in this approach, though institutionalized and beyond the scope of individual operations, is especially clear when a health crisis halts our globalized economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has cancelled flights, produced new border crossing restrictions for non-citizens and spiked health risks for workers in close proximity to others. Regardless, the season continues. Continuing on from our last labour update, here is some of the latest news from North American and European regions, and how they are approaching this year’s unprecedented health and labour crisis.

Navigating Production Concerns

Safety for Foreign Workers

Given that the typical living accommodations for agricultural workers typically feature dormitory style housing with share amenities, ensuring the safety of workers – both those who have just arrived from their country of origin as well as those already present – has become a great challenge. Appropriate distance, particularly for new arrivals requiring a 14-day quarantine period before working, is critical to mitigating spread of COVID-19, as well as access to masks, gloves, and sanitizer. Existing infrastructure on farm properties may not cover what is now needed. Unfortunately, there are now examples of efforts to mitigate farm workers’ health risks falling short to date, with reports this week out of Madison County (NY) of over 120 workers at Green Empire Farms testing positive for COVID-19. This information was gathered through mass testing of asymptomatic workers. Though the company has stated that daily temperature and health screenings were implemented several weeks ago, face coverings have been required for nearly a month, and sanitation practices have been increased, workers have still contracted the virus through close proximity in lodgings.

Appeals to Domestic Workers

With limited access to workers from abroad, many governments are attempting to attract young domestic workers who have been disrupted by pandemic shutdowns to give farm work a try. Industry experts express hesitancy over this plan, as it’s presumptuous to presume flooding farms with inexperienced hands would be helpful and not create new problems. Other farmers have shared experiences of local labourers signing up for work, not realizing the amount of effort involved, and quitting abruptly. This naivety on a broader scale can create seasonal setbacks apart from the work shortage.


Global Responses


In its initial reaction to the pandemic emergency, the Canadian federal government closed its border on March 21, 2020 to non-essential travel, which included those entering the country under the Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) Program. Since the need for migrant labour is critical to the current agricultural infrastructure, however, an exception was granted and foreign workers are now permitted. New quarantine requirements are now legislated and must be adhered to by farm employers to protect workers and beyond. The federal government modified its Canada Summer Jobs program in April, in hopes to attract students to fill farm labour gaps that have widened due to the travel restriction realities for migrants. In turn, Ontario has launched an online portal specifically for agri-food sector job postings, featuring available work throughout the domestic supply chain. Quebec is investing $45 million in funding to boost Agricultural Employment Centres’ resources throughout the province. Quebec is the first Canadian province to implement this type of initiative, its aim being to provide financial assistance for expanding these employment centres, and recruit domestic workers to food-producing farms in their area. Free online training will be provided to workers new to the sector, focusing on safer and effective work practices.


In mid-April, the Department of Homeland Security issued a temporary order to provide greater flexibility in hiring H-2A workers who already reside in the US. Normally, workers under this regulation would have to return to their country of origin (typically Mexico) and obtain a new visa outside of the states in order to return to work at a US farm. This initiative has eased matters slightly for farm managers, but does not address employer-provided housing and transportation safety regarding COVID-19.


Mexico reached an agreement with Canada to continue the operation of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), creating an exception to the travel restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of publishing this statement from the Mexican ambassador to Canada, 14,000 workers were cleared to arrive in Canada as temporary foreign workers for the 2020 season.


Germany is temporarily changing some labour laws to allow asylum seekers and migrants from third countries living in the country to work without official permits.

Finland is appealing to young adults domestically to pursue agricultural work amidst tens of thousands of jobs currently in need of filling, with many seasonal labourers unable to get the visas they were anticipating. Tensions remain regarding the average wage for agricultural workers not being high enough. The Finnish agri-food sector relies largely on Ukrainian labourers, and so negotiations between the countries have taken place to allow chartered planes, as two-week quarantine allocations to occur, in order to fill some demand.

Greece and Albania have agreed to allow thousands of Albanian workers to enter Greece for the agricultural season, in spite of otherwise closed borders due to the pandemic. Up to 10,000 individuals are approved to move to Greece without visas starting in mid-May.

Whether you’re taking a chance recruiting domestic newbies this year, or you’re able to hire seasoned workers from abroad after all, consistent and stringent safety practices have never been more paramount on work sites. Providing a harm-reduced environment is critical to retention and ultimately higher productivity among your crew. In respects to staying organized with your crew, Croptracker farm management software can provide solutions, and eliminate paperwork in your operation’s payroll department. Contact us today to see how we can help your organization simplify your payroll process, piece-meal or otherwise.

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