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Advancing the agriculture for development agenda

Luc Lapointe

The Future of Food, which was the theme for the 2010 Annual General Meeting of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, rests heavily on increased co-operation and co-ordination for international labour mobility and capacity-building to support development in migrant-sending countries. Indeed, the farm workers of tomorrow are growing up outside Canada.

The majority of new entrants to the seasonal farm workforce are migrants and enter the country as temporary foreign workers. Their numbers continue to increase yearly, even in a period of economic slowdown, and some sectors such as agriculture depend heavily on this mobile and flexible workforce. In 2008, statistics released by Citizenship and Immigration Canada indicated that more than 27,000 workers came to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). Several more workers from countries that do not qualify under the SAWP program are increasingly leveraging the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) to obtain access to the Canadian labour market.

This program has changed gradually to meet the demand of Canadian employers for skilled labour in various industries. There is no doubt that in the past years, most of the economic growth flowing from construction, agriculture and trade was supported by temporary foreign workers.

Both programs require the direct involvement of several government departments at federal and provincial levels as well as third parties who operate in Canada and in sending countries. Many problems can arise because stakeholders —including employers, workers, governments, unions, human rights groups and recruiters— have diverging expectations. At times the complexity of this arrangement and poor co-ordination among stakeholders has rendered the SAWP and TFWP inefficient, and at others it has created adverse consequences for both workers and employers. Improved planning from all stakeholders and advanced training abroad for workers could help prevent accidents in the workplace and increase productivity.

Many have called for an overhaul of this program and changes to address the needs of temporary foreign workers and employers. With a few minor adjustments, this program could become an innovative tool for meaningful development in both countries. Canada needs a more effective mechanism to bring these workers to Canada and to create a win-win situation from which the sending country can see increased opportunities for development.

Stakeholders should acknowledge that migration can increase access to education and training for workers. The opportunity to gain Canadian know-how can open the door for enhanced trade, sustainable development and increase respect for human rights in the sending country.

In Canada, the term ‘temporary foreign worker’ is almost universally associated with farm workers, and very often with abused, impoverished and exploited farm workers. Our collective memory of this experiment with temporary labour has not aged well, and to this day it haunts proposals to bring more workers in agriculture or other sectors to Canada. Generally, the Canadian ideal of an immigrant favours hard workers who will save up money, perhaps start a business and succeed in their adoptive country. Temporary foreign workers also come to earn and save money, but they are not coming to stay, which is not in line with Canadians’ expectations.

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, in 2008 migrant workers from around the world sent US$69.2 billion in remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean; this flow kept millions of families above the poverty line. The TFWP offers a unique opportunity to look beyond remittances and foster more sustainable development by creating opportunities for training in Canada.

The agricultural sector could be, once again, a catalyst for change in immigration. The dynamic of mobility alone has profound implications for immigrants and for Canada’s healthy labour market growth. Some Canadian NGOs and analysts do not see a benefit to temporary migration; their single greatest objection to a TFWP may have nothing to do with the well-being of migrant workers.

The TFWP and SAWP could be based on the concept that education and training is at the heart of immigration efforts. Without human resources training and capacity-building, these programs run the risk of limiting the intended results of our development programs in developing countries. A renewed TFWP could focus on a series of actions directed at helping migrants become important development actors by increasing their knowledge and skills to bring about the desired changes in their home country.

Elsewhere, functional temporary migrant worker programs have created a series of incentives to encourage workers to come back to their country on completion of their contracts. Some, such as South Korea’s, withhold money until workers return. Other countries such as the Philippines actively enlist the help of receiving governments to ensure safe working conditions for Filipino temporary workers among other things.

Despite these encouraging efforts to frame temporary migration, the Canadian government decided last year to take a different approach and proposed changes to the Immigration Refugee and Protection Act, introducing restrictions on temporary foreign workers that would reduce mobility and access to the Canadian labour market.

Of course, the moral calculus for increased co-operation should take into account both the well-being of temporary foreign workers and the need for an immigration scheme that respects the preferences of Canadians. But Canada’s role in development co-operation cannot be defined exclusively on the basis of self-interest. Increased opportunity for circular migration, capacity-building and training would bring immediate benefits to producers, migrant workers and developing countries.

Agriculture can contribute to development in many ways. It contributes to development as an economic activity, as a livelihood and as a provider of environmental services, making the sector a unique instrument for development.

The World Bank’s World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development warns that agriculture must be placed at the centre of the development agenda if the goals of halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 are to be realized. In the wider context of migration, Canadian farmers’ organizations should step up to the challenge so that discussions on the future of food in Canada and on food security in developing countries include a dynamic agriculture for development agenda.blue square

Luc Lapointe is the President of Ottawa-based Connexion Internationale.

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