There has been considerable discussion this week about COVID mitigation measures and our food system. Two significant stories emerged this week in Canada. The first related to the vaccine mandate for truckers crossing the border which just came into effect. There was considerable discussion that turning unvaccinated truckers away at the border would compromise food security in this country. There is little doubt that limiting the number of truckers who can cross the border will disrupt supply chains -- including the food supply chain - but it remains unclear how much disruption will occur. The second issue related to the temporary (since rescinded) halt on arrival of temporary foreign workers (TFW) in Windsor Essex to allow for the expansion of infrastructure to ensure that workers who are exposed or infected can properly isolate. The decisions that public health agencies and politicians have to make are difficult and rarely please everyone. In these cases, with the caveat that I don't know all of the information, I would have made the same decision in one case and a different one in the other.
Trucking is a relatively solitary activity. There is interaction with other people at the beginning and end of a trip and potentially with stops along the way. These interactions will, largely not be in crowded situations and risk can be managed with proper mitigation methods. Don't get me wrong, I am a strong vaccine supporter and am boosted. I also think that vaccine mandates in areas like health care are critical to protect our most vulnerable. We are, however, seeing some areas where the mandates are relaxed in order to ensure that there is sufficient staff to continue to deliver service. I would hope that we continue to try to convince truckers and others who are unvaccinated to get vaccinated both for their own sakes and for those around them.
Truckers do bring some risk. They travel long distances and can accelerate the spread. On the other hand, the Omicron variant is already active across Canada and the US so the risk is related to exposure rather than new introduction of a variant right now.
There is already a shortage of truckers across North America and capacity constraints like container shortages are also slowing down the movement of goods. At this time of year, almost all of our fresh produce comes from the US and South America. We do have some greenhouse production in Canada (see next section on TFW below). We are unlikely to starve or run out of food but there could definitely be a reduction in variety and a more substantial increase in price. Price increases place disproportionate burden on the food insecure, a group that has already borne a disproportionate burden of the pandemic.
Given the limited interactions for truckers, is it not possible to develop a protocol for unvaccinated truckers that limits disruption of the flow of food and other goods? I understand compliance is a potential issue but I expect we can deal with that. Require regular testing. Require N95 masks. Limit non-essential interactions with the broader public. Once restaurants re-open we could maintain the vaccine mandate to enter. It seems to me that this offers a reasonable compromise and dramatically reduces the risk associated with unvaccinated truckers.
The temporary stop of the entry of temporary foreign workers in Windsor Essex was due to the lack of infrastructure to effectively isolate those worker who were infected or exposed. Isolation is a critical tool in breaking the cycle of transmission - particularly for the highly transmissable omicron variant. The stop was to allow for the development of a plan to allow for effective isolation in the face of a current outbreak.
A lack of workers is devastating for farmers in Windsor Essex. Some greenhouse operators are producing winter vegetables and limits on workers can mean not only the interruption of sales but also the loss of the ongoing production as plants grow wild. Other greenhouse operators are gearing up for spring and planting seeds that will be transplanted when the weather improves. Delays or inefficiencies now have the potential to compromise the harvest through the summer and fall. This matters. Again, while it does not mean we will run out of food, there could be a reduction in choice and an increase in price.
Infection in the TFW population was an issue in the first wave of COVID but many producers were able to adapt and implement plans to keep workers safe and maintain production. The highly transmissable omicron variant complicates this as do producers who have not done as much as the majority to ensure safety. The truth is that the TFW often have to work in close proximity to one another and often live in communal housing which increases the risk relative to those posed by and on truckers. We must continue to implement and execute good infection control practices, masking and hand washing, vaccinations and boosters, and isolation when infections occur. This is not just important for controlling infection in the broader community, but also to protect the health of these workers. We should not be willing to compromise on their health to ensure production continues. We should also not compromise on production. We can and need to build the infrastructure to support this and, it appears, that is what is happening. Arrivals have been re-opened because isolation infrastructure has been found and now production can continue.
I was quoted in a recent article in the Globe and Mail. I was criticized by several producers for saying "“I’m very sympathetic to greenhouse producers who are being hurt,” he said. “But I find it very difficult to rationalize putting any group of people at risk of getting acutely sick and dying to maintain my access to nice tomatoes this time of year.” I stand by this comment. If we can't have infrastructure to ensure safety, we shouldn't bring these workers in to produce our food. If the viability of a business and the stability of our food system depends on exposing TFW to more risk than we would willingly expose domestic workers to, then we need to rethink the system. We provide free isolation hotels for travelers and others - TFW should be offered no less. I appreciate that the general ban on entry hurts producers who are doing a good job. I don't think these decisions are taken lightly. The isolation infrastructure is share infrastructure provided by the Health Unit. Perhaps producers who provide evidence of the ability to isolate infected and exposed workers should be allowed to receive workers. Regardless, this issue has been resolved for now and hopefully production will continue and safety can be insured.
Labour is an issue throughout the food system. We have too many low paying and insecure jobs. We should pay more for food so that farmers and others who work in the food system can have a reasonable income. We should ensure that TFW are treated fairly. That is the subject for another blog post (or several).
Recommended citation format: von Massow, Michael. "Truckers and Temporary Foreign Workers - Protecting People and the Food System". Food Focus Guelph (121), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, January 16, 2022.