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Victor Cooper, 43, a seasonal worker from Trinidad, in his 9th year of working for Paul Sopuch and Sons farm, clears wood from the fields that has been pushed up through the soil by the frost.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

They pour coffee, care for children, pick berries and wrangle chickens – unglamorous, often low-wage jobs that are vital to Canada's economy.

The umbrella term "temporary foreign worker" covers upward of a quarter of a million people coming to Canada from 80 countries every year. Many are recruited by private agencies that run the gamut from respected international organizations to tiny operations accused of charging exorbitant fees for the privilege of a short-term, minimum-wage job in Canada.

Monday's horrific crash in southwestern Ontario, in which 10 migrant workers were killed when the van transporting them smashed into a truck and careened into a building by the side of the road, exposes a growing sector of Canada's labour market that, despite its size, tends to go unnoticed.

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In the span of a decade, temporary foreign workers' ranks have swelled to more than 250,000 from 100,000. Their numbers have outpaced those of immigrants for the past five years as Canada's labour market shifts its focus to short-term work over citizenship for life.

Agricultural employers who depend on the flexible labour of seasonal workers contend they're the backbone of a sector that simply wouldn't survive without them.

"The core of the farm would be gone," said Ken Forth, a farmer and president of the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Service. He brings in about 16 Jamaican migrants every year to work on his Ontario broccoli farm as seasonal agricultural workers.

"If I didn't have people to pick my crops, I wouldn't need my truck driver: What's he going to truck? … And that is a big deal. A really big deal."

Canada has been bringing in workers on a short-term basis since the 1960s. And until recently, the majority of its migrant farm workers came under a closely regulated seasonal agricultural workers' program through which Canada has bilateral agreements with 13 countries. These governments – Mexico, Jamaica and 11 Caribbean states – are responsible for recruiting workers themselves. More than 25,000 of them come to Canada annually, two-thirds headed to Ontario's farms.

As essential as these workers are to Canada's economy, the money they send home is a crucial financial boost: Of the roughly $89-million sent in remittances from Canadians to Mexico, 75 per cent comes from seasonal agricultural workers.

A decade-old "pilot project" has dramatically expanded the options for employers looking to bring in temporary foreign work: The Pilot Project for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Training allows employers to apply to Ottawa for permission to hire workers from anywhere, for any work – as long as they can show Ottawa that Canadians haven't responded to job postings.

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Their varied countries of origin include the Philippines, India, Thailand and Peru. And those familiar with Canada's migrant-worker system believe the 10 people killed in Monday's crash were here under this initiative. Even the most fervent boosters of migrant-worker programs say this set-up is perhaps more lax than it should be.

"We've certainly always encouraged the federal government to put a lot more rules around the low-skills program," said Mark Wales, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and an Elgin County vegetable farmer. "To make it better for everyone."

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's spokeswoman, Candice Malcolm, said the Conservative government has taken "significant steps" to improve the temporary foreign worker program. "Our government is constantly looking at ways to make the system safer for everyone involved."

Flying and trucking in foreign labour pushes buttons across the political spectrum: Some argue foreign workers take jobs that should be going to Canadian unemployed; others say Canada's taking unfair advantage of people who, thanks to economic circumstance, are willing to do work that citizens won't.

Temporary work is by its nature precarious. But it's made more so for people who don't speak the language, are worried about being fired and have only a tenuous relationship with their employer.

"They're more vulnerable," said Jenna Hennebry, a Laurier University researcher who co-wrote a study on migrant workers' health published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last year. "They don't have access to the same kinds of services as permanent migrants … they have a fear of loss of employment, which means they're less likely to report unsafe working conditions."

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In 2010, Alberta put $850,000 toward settlement programs for temporary foreign workers after they more than sextupled in a decade – proportionally, the largest surge in the country.

"They're contributing to the economy and they're meeting a labour shortage that employers don't seem to manage with the existing population," said Alice Colak, chief operating officer of Alberta's Catholic Social Services, which has support services for temporary foreign workers in Edmonton and Red Deer.

Alberta's temporary foreign workers are now split evenly between skilled and low-skilled employees. Many in the latter group work in construction or hospitality.

What took Alec Farquhar aback when he arrived in Simcoe, Ont., one Friday evening in 2009 to bring a mobile medical clinic to migrants was the size of a labour network of which he'd only been tangentially aware.

"It's like a whole different town. It's taken over by farm workers. And you get this sense of this hidden community in our midst – the people who are serving our basic needs and we don't know who they are. I found it profoundly moving. And unsettling," he said.

"Some of the farm workers come to Ontario eight months of the year and 20 or more years in a row – they're in Canada more than many Canadians. And yet they're never more than one incident away from being sent home."

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With a report from Steven Chase in Ottawa

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