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Ottawa has received only a fraction of the applications it was expecting for a pilot program that would give a pathway to permanent residency for temporary foreign workers in some year-round agricultural industries.

The Agri-Food Pilot, which opened in May, 2020, was expected to welcome 2,750 migrant workers per year over three years, but the Immigration department says it only received a total of 343 applications that were complete as of Aug. 31 this year.

The program was intended to fill long-standing labour gaps in full-time, year-round industries, such as meat processing, mushroom growing and greenhouse production. Temporary foreign workers (TFWs) who came to Canada to work in those industries could be sponsored by their employers for permanent residency, as long as they fulfill certain criteria.

The program was particularly in demand at meat-processing plants, which face caps on the number of TFWs who can work at the facilities. The caps are at 10 per cent or 20 per cent of the work force, depending on a plant’s historical use of the TFW program. If a worker is accepted into the Agri-Food Pilot and put on a pathway to permanent residency, they are removed from a plant’s cap and that business can then recruit another TFW.

Industry groups say the low program uptake is because of the government’s slow processing time on the initial wave of applications, and because of the program’s educational requirements.

Marie-France MacKinnon, vice-president of public affairs at the Canadian Meat Council, said that although the program began in 2020, it took months to hear back on the files. She said her organization met with Marco Mendicino, then the immigration minister, in February to discuss issues with the pilot, but it took another six months after that to start hearing back from his department. (Mr. Mendicino was replaced on Tuesday by Sean Fraser.)

“We were told that all these applications, for a year and a half, went straight to a box and sat there,” Ms. MacKinnon said. She added that businesses were reluctant to submit more applications when they didn’t know the status of their initial files.

Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for the minister, did not respond to a question about the low program uptake, but said the pilot was innovative.

“As with all new programs, we keep an open mind as to future changes and will conduct a thorough analysis to inform our decisions moving forward,” Mr. Cohen said.

An Immigration spokesperson said the ministry could not provide processing times for the Agri-Food Pilot. The spokesperson said application times can vary because of a number of factors, including how easily the department can verify information, the complexity of the application and the department’s resources.

Industry groups have also raised concerns about requirements for TFWs in the program to have a Canadian high-school diploma, or an equivalent from another country. That document can be difficult to track down, depending on where the worker is from, how long ago they graduated and whether the institution was closed during the pandemic.

Janet Krayden, a work-force specialist at the Canadian Mushroom Growers Association, said businesses have proposed that the pilot be changed to accept two years of Canadian work experience in lieu of the education requirement.

“We have been fighting for years on behalf of the agriculture and agri-food TFWs to have their Canadian job experience recognized,” Ms. Krayden said.

Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said workers can also face challenges on filling out the forms because of language barriers and lack of internet or computer access, as well as the cost of working with immigration consultants or for assessments of educational requirements. He questioned why the program wasn’t open to seasonal workers, who make up the majority of agricultural TFWs.

“A lot of this is just designed to make it impossible for most people to access it,” he said.

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