U.S. News

Flu not causing U.S., Canadian farm labor shortage

PHOENIX (Reuters) - U.S. and Canadian authorities have imposed no travel restrictions on thousands of temporary Mexican migrant workers in response to the swine flu outbreak, although some Canadian farmers are concerned about possible labor shortages.

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Governments around the world rushed to reduce the impact of a possible flu pandemic Monday, as a virus that has killed up to 149 people in Mexico and spread to the United States and Canada also reached Europe.

Officials said the U.S. border with Mexico was open as normal and no travel restrictions had been imposed even though a public health emergency had been declared. The United States issued 64,404 temporary farm worker visas in the 2008 fiscal year, according to State Department data.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said on its website it was postponing visa application appointments set for Monday to Wednesday and was limiting its services to U.S. citizens to passport applications and help in emergencies, although it was not immediately clear if that might affect temporary work visa applications.

In Canada, where some 14,000 Mexicans labor on fruit and vegetable farms, authorities said no restrictions were currently imposed on travel, although temporary workers were being screened carefully before departure from Mexico.

“We are monitoring the situation closely, and we’re working closely with our federal partners to gather information and manage the impact on Canada of the evolving health situation in Mexico and determine what action is required,” said Alykhan Velshi, spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

The Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Service (FARMS), which manages around 15,500 foreign farm workers in Ontario, including up to 9,000 from Mexico, warned any potential interruption to the ongoing hiring process could prove “very critical” for farmers in the province.

“Some of those farmers don’t have any workers at all,” said FARMS president Ken Forth.


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday urged caution over travel to Mexico.

Farmers and nurserymen in the United States said they were not immediately concerned about labor shortages stemming from the outbreak, although they were closely monitoring the government’s response.

“We are always very concerned about any issues that might affect our foreign labor force, because they are the lifeblood of our industry,” said Paul Muthart, general manager of Pasquinelli Produce Co, one of the largest growers of winter produce in Yuma, in far west Arizona.

Muthart added that he was not worried about any potential worker shortages in the short term as “the flu outbreak coincides with a labor lull -- it’s the cyclical nature of our business.”

The American Nursery and Landscape Association, which lobbies for labor needs for the U.S. nursery and landscaping sectors, said there was no indication that work force demands were not being met because of the flu outbreak.

“Everybody is concerned about a flu outbreak that endangers people’s health and people’s lives. (But) I have not yet heard any reports of the situation complicating the timely arrival of seasonal workers, and we hope that that continues,” said spokesman Craig Regelbrugge.

“I haven’t heard that there are any outright travel restrictions yet, obviously if that happens, things change. For many, the work has already started, the workers have already crossed,” he added.

Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Monterrey, and Randall Palmer in Ottawa; Editing by Eric Walsh