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Rural Health through the Lenses of Housing for International Agricultural Workers

By: Damilola Oyewale & Ryan Gibson 

Photo of an apple farm
"Apple Farm," April 2024 (Submitted Photo)

The International Agricultural Workers’ Housing and Rural Planning research team at the University of Guelph is engaged in an innovative study that examines the policy impact on housing conditions, and the well-being of International Agricultural Workers in Ontario's rural communities. This research is pivotal as it deeply explores the complex interplay between housing conditions, existing policies and programs, and the broader array of social determinants of health that profoundly impact the well-being of this indispensable yet vulnerable workforce. By examining issues through an integrated lens that considers environmental, socioeconomic, and occupational factors concurrently, the project aims to develop a nuanced understanding of how living situations combine with systemic supports and community conditions to influence International Agricultural Workers' physical health, mental health, and overall quality of life. 

Photo of a farmers market with a display of vegatables
"Farmers' Market," April 2024 (Submitted Photo)

 

International Agricultural Workers are fundamental to Ontario’s agricultural industry, serving as an essential component of the production process. From planting and maintenance to harvesting, pest control, and implementing sustainable farming practices, they play a crucial role in enhancing productivity and sustainability. By contributing to every aspect of agriculture, they ensure that food and agricultural products are delivered to markets efficiently and responsibly. International Agricultural Workers do not only support the economic vitality of rural communities through their essential roles in the agri-food sector but also foster a cross-cultural exchange, strengthening the social cohesion of the communities where they live and work. 


Since the onset of COVID-19, the number of International Agricultural Workers in Ontario has risen. Past studies reveal that some of these workers have struggled to get adequate housing arrangements. This issue not only jeopardizes their physical and mental health and safety but also hinders their social integration and sense of belonging in the communities where they temporarily live. Among the available resources that can significantly impact the well-being and safety of international agricultural workers are coalition groups, unions, and health services that provide crucial support networks.  


Support for International Agricultural Workers 

 Worker coalitions like Justicia for Migrant Workers play an important role in advocating for migrant rights and protections. Through public education, legal advising, and healthcare navigation assistance, they aim to empower workers facing challenges in securing adequate wages and working conditions.  

 

Meanwhile, union organizations like the United Food and Commercial Workers advocate at bargaining tables on issues directly impacting farm laborers like wage parity, sick leave access, and fair scheduling practices.  

 

From a healthcare perspective, services like the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) also provide invaluable aid. OHCOW diagnoses work-related illnesses and develops prevention strategies through on-site farm visits and mobile health units. Their expertise in assessing occupational risks helps educate workers and employers on maintaining safety standards. However, utilization of these important resources is limited by barriers like language difficulties, lack of transportation, and administrative hurdles. Understanding these service gaps preventing optimal involvement can guide efforts to better support International Agricultural Workers through coordinated social services networks. 


Insights from Local Government Planners 

Based on a series of interviews with local government planners three key themes related to rural health emerged. 

 

Gathering Foundational Evidence 

To lay the groundwork for meaningful, evidence-based policy recommendations, our research began by conducting confidential consultations with local government planners. These interactions provided invaluable regulatory perspectives and deepened our understanding of existing housing policies, enforcement approaches, and the complex realities on the ground.  


Photo of red covered bridge over a field and river
"Covered Bridge," April 2024 (Submitted Photo)

Findings have revealed significant variability in housing standards and inspections across different municipalities, stemming from a lack of consistency in the local implementation of the 2020 Provincial Policy Statement and other policies related to International Agricultural Workers housing. They further pointed out that the Provincial Policy Statement lacks clear specifications, leading to inadequate oversight in implementation across municipalities. Insights so far revealed maintenance standards, overcrowding concerns, and affordability heavily influence International Agricultural Worker health and well-being outcomes.  

 

Observations highlighted work-life dynamics as a crucial social determinant that underscores how interconnected factors affect the overall health of International Agricultural Workers. These observations underscore the need for provincial-level reform to harmonize standards and enhance housing protections for International Agricultural Workers consistently across the province. The insights from this evaluation provide crucial evidence of regulatory gaps and inconsistencies, which will inform recommendations for necessary policy changes.


Illuminating Frontline Realities

Photo of a vegetable patch
"Vegetable Patch," April 2024 (Submitted Photo)

Initial consultations proved invaluable for illuminating planners’ experiences behind even the most complex policy matters. This formative evidence will guide our ongoing, collaborative efforts to recommend integrated rural community development. Discussions on affordability shed light on significant constraints experienced by farm operators seeking suitable housing arrangements for workers. Financial barriers are compounded by tensions surrounding equitable resource allocation within communities.  


By fostering open dialogue with those navigating these interwoven difficulties daily, we have gained a finely-tuned appreciation of frontline realities shaping both agri-food workforce needs and industry viability. However, only with deep contextual understanding can we design pragmatic, multi-level solutions supporting all stakeholders' well-being in balanced and sustainable ways. 


Expanding Stakeholder Engagement 

Recognizing the complexities of housing issues, this research scope will encompass a broad range of perspectives, roles, and responsibilities related to International Agricultural Worker housing. Future stages of the study will involve incorporating perspectives from International Agricultural Workers and gathering insights into their experiences and challenges with housing and work. We will also include insights from farm representatives to deepen our understanding of the operational and economic factors that influence housing provisions. Engaging stakeholders, including government, agricultural employers, and community organizations, we aim to recommend strategies that enhance well-being, social inclusion, and economic sustainability.  

 

Our study focuses on the nexus of housing and well-being to create a supportive framework for all involved in the agri-food industry, aiming to contribute to a healthier, more sustainable future for rural Ontario. We aim to formulate policy recommendations that will lead to significant policy changes, resulting in long-term improvements in housing standards and support services. Our recommendations will be designed to guide decision-makers in developing more effective housing strategies for International Agricultural Workers. 

 

If you have questions or inquiries about the International Agricultural Workers Housing and Rural Planning project, please contact Ryan Gibson (gibsonr@uoguelph.ca). We will continue to provide updates as the study progresses. For the latest information on this research, please visit and follow www.ruraldev.ca/iawhousing

 

Let’s hear from you: 

What solutions have you seen for farm worker housing shortages? Share your experiences and ideas in the comments below to help us explore. 


Additional Resources 

 

Helps, L., Silvius, R., & Gibson, R. (2021). Vulnerable, Inequitable, and Precarious: Impacts of COVID-19 on Newcomers, Immigrants, And Migrant Workers in Rural Canada. Journal of Rural and Community Development, 16(4). https://journals.brandonu.ca/jrcd/article/view/2102/540 

 

Hennebry, J.L., & Preibisch, K. (2010). A Model for Managed Migration? Re-Examining Best Practices in Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. International Migration, 50,19–40. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2435.2009.00598.x


About Authors

Damilola Oyewale is a Master student in the Rural Planning and Development program at the University of Guelph. Through his research, he is examining how policies impact housing and well-being for International Agricultural Workers. 


Dr. Ryan Gibson, Gateway CERH Research Chair of Rural Economic Development.

Dr. Ryan Gibson is the Gateway CERH Research Chair of Rural Economic Development. Dr. Gibson an associate professor at Guelph University in the School of Environmental Design and Economic Development and a Libro professor in Economic Development. His research focuses on economic development, immigration, and regional policy planning and governance in rural communities.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Gateway CERH. We believe in providing a platform for a diverse range of perspectives, and this article is intended to stimulate thoughtful discussion.

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