NEW HAMBURG -- As a New Hamburg farm prepares to welcome migrant workers back for the second time during the pandemic, advocates are pushing for more protection to those coming to Canada.

Pfenning's Organic Farm is planning to have 47 Jamaican migrant workers helping them out by May 1.

Jennifer Pfenning, an operations manager at the farm, says it's been a bit of a different process than last year, or the 15 other years they've been hiring migrant workers.

"The paperwork process, the back end process is proceeding according to plan, but the requirements coming into the country have changed," she said.

Workers have to be tested for COVID-19 before flying and again once they land.

Pfenning adds that they will be able to isolate in bunkhouses on the farm because they are considered essential workers.

"Most of the rooms have either two people in them or one person," she said. "We have two rooms that have more than that with one for six people and one for four people."

While the bigger rooms have space for distancing, masks will also be provided.

Pfenning says they will be coming daily checks that include taking temperatures and monitoring symptoms.

There were no positive cases among migrant workers on the farm last year.

Syed Hussan, the executive director for Migrant Workers Alliance for change, says they are still missing policy protections from provincial and federal governments.

"The federal government must implement immigration reform, starting with full and permanent immigration status for all," he said. "The provinces must mandate physical distancing at work and in housing at all times.

"What is missing is political will."

Pfenning agrees with Hussan regarding the need for help from the governments.

"I think that that's the only real step we can take to try and help these people avail themselves of their rights," she said. "Everyone needs to think about how they would feel if they were in these people's shoes.

"They are people first. These are human beings who have left their countries, their homes, their families, their communities, to work on Canadian farms and harvest the food we eat."

The federal government launched consultations in 2020 in hopes to improve living conditions for temporary foreign workers.

Pfenning hopes the protection she can offer her workers are vaccines. She's reached out to the Region of Waterloo to request a mobile vaccination clinic on the farm, but says there is no timeline yet on this.

Pfenning on the importance of hiring migrant workers

When asked about the importance of hiring migrant workers, Pfenning says working on a farm full time isn't something that North American society has projected as an economically viable career future.

"We haven't given our food the economic value that I think it deserves," she said. "Nor have we given the work that it takes to produce it the economic value that it deserves.

"We as a society have said that manual labour is not desirable, but it takes manual labour to put food on our tables."

Pfenning adds the issue isn't as simple as 'locals are lazy and don't want to get their hands dirty' and says more should be asked of why they're not able to pay people a sustainable living to do the needed farm work.

The operations manager says most farms pay migrant workers minimum wage to start, but also pay a portion of their transportation to home and back, within the country, and provide them with lodging.

"They are hard working, efficient, and they are in a system that pushes them to maintain that level of productivity and efficient," she said.

"When you have a group of people who are so fully dependent on their employer, like my workers are, it's hard to correct that employer-employee imbalance."

Most of the workers at Pfenning's have been with them for 16 years and have seen wage increases.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said foreign workers have the same rights to workplace protections as Canadian and permanent residents.

"Currently, qualified foreign workers have the opportunity to become permanent residents if that is their desire, through the Express Entry system, one of the provincial/territorial nominee programs, or through one of the innovative pilot programs that are in place, provided they meet the criteria. Canada is looking for individuals who have a range of skills, education and experience that can help them gain employment in Canada and successfully integrate into Canadian society," a statement said in part. "Although a person with a work permit doesn’t automatically qualify to stay permanently, having a job offer in Canada and Canadian work experience as a temporary worker are typically beneficial to those who apply to become permanent residents. In 2019, for instance, about 63,000 work permit holders made the transition to permanent status."