File photo by ADVOCATE staff A Nixon Honey worker scrapes a frame on the production line at the family-run operation east of Innisfail.

Central Alberta honey producer in limbo waiting for foreign workers

COVID-19 restrictions holding up tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers

Central Alberta honey producer Kevin Nixon was hopeful the federal government’s support for allowing temporary foreign workers into Canada would mean critical employees might soon be on their way.

Two weeks later, he has not given up, but myriad complications have arisen that have Canadian agriculture producers, who rely on 60,000 temporary foreign workers, apprehensive the help will arrive on time.

Nixon, who is the second generation behind Nixon Honey, east of Innisfail, said the situation right now is “not good.

“It’s kind of out of Canada’s hands in a way.”

While the federal government’s support for lifting travel restrictions on foreign workers was welcomed by producers, a lot had to happen in workers’ home countries and on their travel routes to make it a reality.

That’s where a number of issues have arisen. Many Nicaraguans who had hoped to return to their Canadian summer jobs could not get their paperwork, because the local visa application centre was shut down because of COVID-19, said Nixon, who is part of a Canadian Honey Council committee focused on the issue.

The council is looking into the cost of chartering a plane to pick up Nicaraguans, with the substantial bill shared by producers.

Restrictions that prevent flights landing in the U.S., as well as frequent last-minute flight cancellations, have also upset the usual travel arrangements for many labourers, including the Mexicans who work for Nixon Honey, some of whom have been making the trip to his farm for 20 years.

The Phillipines is also the home of many temporary foreign workers. Previously, they often made a connection in Japan. But Japan banned those stops recently.

Hong Kong connections can be made, but officials require a 14-day quarantine for all switching flights. With the 14-day Canadian quarantine added on when they arrive, workers would not be able to begin their jobs for a month at the earliest.

“It is very frustrating,” said Nixon. “It’s very complicated.”

For now, he can only wait to see if his skilled workforce will arrive in time for the honey season, which is just about to begin. Six workers were to have arrived at the end of last month, with 10 more expected by the end of April.

“We have not received any (workers) and we are unsure at this time if or when we will receive any,” he said.

“We are concerned and we’ve been in touch with our workers. They are healthy and that’s the good news.”

Nixon has recommended they do the same kind of physical distancing Canadians have been asked to do, in hopes all of the workers remain healthy and can hop on a plane as soon as one is available.

As financially difficult as the worker shortage is for Canadian producers, the prospect of not being able to work will be a severe blow to those who rely on their annual Canadian income to support their families at home.

With the travel and health situation changing almost daily, Nixon is concerned that the longer it takes to clear the way for foreign worker travel, the more likely new restrictions will be introduced, complicating the process again.

“These workers have a skill level. Some have been working with us for up to 20 years. You can’t just hire someone and run three or four crews with greenhorns.

“It just doesn’t work.”

Nixon Honey already employs seven locals.

“We want to support our local community as best we can which includes hiring local workers for the positions we can find qualified local people to do,” he said.

But for the seasonal skilled work that honey production requires, the Mexican workers have filled the gap in labour supply.

One of the requirements for participating in the temporary foreign worker program is that the jobs must be advertised in Canada first. There have been no takers for the positions, which are low paying by Canadian standards and are not permanent jobs.

Every few days, there is a “glimmer of hope” that the workers will begin to arrive and Nixon remains hopeful. But it has not been easy on the family.

“We are in limbo. We sit here every day questioning what to do.”

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