Why do Canada and Germany allow in seasonal and other workers, but Australia and New Zealand do not?

Temporary migrant workers make up the bulk of the seasonal workforce on farms in developed countries (Tony Webster/ Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)
Temporary migrant workers make up the bulk of the seasonal workforce on farms in developed countries (Tony Webster/ Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

New Zealand’s and Australia’s much better COVID-19 performance compared with Canada and Germany has not resulted in a more flexible migration policy. The vastly different attitudes of the Canadian and German governments are shown in how they have opened their borders, not only to seasonal workers but also to other temporary and permanent migrants.

Using 19 July 2020 as the common date, New Zealand’s and Australia’s COVID-19 mortality rate was the same at 4.6 deaths per million people. Canada’s mortality rate per million was 234.2 and Germany’s was 108.4 deaths per million. Just as a reference point, the chart below also includes the United Kingdom with its high death rate of 666.9 per million.

European CDC Cumulative confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million people


Canada initially closed its borders on 18 March 2020 and on 16 July the Canadian Prime Minister extended the border closure until 21 August. However, essential workers and temporary foreign workers have been exempted, a decision announced on 27 March. Canada’s Minister for Immigration has continued to welcome both permanent immigrants and temporary foreign workers during the pandemic. In May 2020, Canada granted permanent residence to 11,000 immigrants, an increase from 4,000 permanent residence visas granted the previous month.

Canada has also continued to approve work permits for both higher and lower skilled temporary workers, as shown by recent official statistics on the number of temporary work permits issued. In January 2020, Canada issued 33,000 work permits under its Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Agricultural workers accounted for 66% of the work permits issued or about 22,000 workers. In March, TFWP work permit approvals fell to 19,650. However, with the reopening of the border on 27 March to essential workers, the number of work permit approvals increased. In April and May 2020, some 29,900 and 25,125 temporary work permits, respectively, were issued. The figure for May was a 45% decrease from the same month in 2019, said to be due to fewer Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) workers coming.

A special pathway for seasonal workers has continued to operate due to the strong representations by farmers to the Canadian Government about labour shortages stopping them from planning and harvesting their crops. Workers continue to come, subject to strict hygiene safety requirements, despite concerns from the governments of Mexico and the Caribbean about the high number of COVID-19 cases in Canada, including in the areas where the seasonal work was located.

However, it has not all been plain sailing. After three seasonal workers from Mexico died in the Province of Ontario and other workers were treated in hospital, the Mexican Government temporarily stopped on 15 June up to 5,000 workers waiting to go to Canada while it conducted a safety audit of the conditions for workers on farms. On 21 June, Mexico allowed seasonal workers to resume travelling to work on Canadian farms after the two governments agreed to set up a joint working group to examine the working and living conditions of the temporary workers. The Canadian Government also undertook to increase the number of inspections, provide more support to workers, and impose severe sanctions on farmers not complying with the standards required.


Germany announced in early April 2020 that it would reopen its borders for seasonal agricultural workers under strict hygiene conditions and entry requirements such as travel by plane only to designated airports. This was in reaction to intense pressure from the German Farmers Union, regional farmers’ associations, and other associations along the food supply chain. The cap was set at 80,000 workers allowed to work in Germany over two months. However, according to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, only 38,967 seasonal agricultural workers entered Germany under these rules in the period to 3 June 2020.

After this two-month period, the German Government announced an easing of the entry restrictions including the requirement for workers to go into quarantine on arrival. From 16 June, seasonal agricultural workers from the European Union and other countries can again enter Germany via road and rail as well as air. The workers are mainly Romanian and Bulgarian citizens. The new rules include how workers are to be accommodated and physical distancing requirements at work. Employers also must notify their local health and safety authority, which will monitor the health of the workers. The workers’ contact details are to be lodged with the local medical authority in case of infection.

Employers also must send the relevant documents to workers in their preferred language before they come to Germany. The documents are to include the employment contract, and a contract about ancillary costs, information on living and working conditions, including hygiene rules and proof that the worker is covered by health insurance.

Germany’s confidence in managing COVID-19 was shown in the government’s decision in April to require physical distancing measures for and reopen its borders to seasonal workers. This confidence was informed by a continuous tracking of key indicators by local agencies. The result has been few signs of a COVID-19 resurgence.


Australia’s approach could not be more different. There is some talk but no definite plan for bringing seasonal workers into Australia for the summer peak. And despite a statement by the federal Minister for Agriculture (25 March) in which he insisted that workers involved in food production and supply are providing an essential service, as of 22 July, seasonal workers who are temporary visa holders, such as SWP workers and backpackers, have been banned from moving from Victoria into New South Wales (NSW). According to the NSW Minister for Agriculture, the ban has been imposed on the advice of health officials in both NSW and Victoria that visa holders are deemed ‘high-risk and potential spreaders’ of COVID-19. The implication that foreign farm workers are higher risk than Australian ones is outrageous.

Australia’s and New Zealand’s early success in reducing the spread and harm caused by COVID-19 has paradoxically led both countries into extremely risk-averse positions, including the continued closure of international borders. This isolationist strategy cannot be sustained, and a concerted effort needs to be made to move away from it towards a policy stance of a gradual opening up of borders together with a strengthening of systems to prevent, detect, contain and treat the virus. There is much we can learn from other countries that have opened up ahead of us.

This post is part of the #COVID-19 and the Pacific series.

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Richard Curtain

Richard Curtain is a research associate, and recent former research fellow, with the Development Policy Centre. He is an expert on Pacific labour markets and migration.


  • All very interesting Richard – the free-markets fan in me perhaps naively assumes that if we don’t get the foreign labour to meet the summer picking needs, the market mechanism will kick in to deliver the most obvious alternative – i.e. domestic labour at a higher price. I guess the big question though is whether that price would be so high that it renders the entire exercise commercially non-viable. Having regard to the previous comment by Andrew Coldbeck – as well as my own experiences trying to hire staff for a part-time position over the past few months (as JobSeeker affects labour markets) – perhaps the answer, at least as it currently stands, it clearly yes. In which case I guess we need to one of:
    a) import labour and manage the risk, as you advocate;
    b) arrange sufficient government financial aid such that affected industries can obtain domestic labour at a reasonable effective price; or
    c) abandon at least a portion of the affected crops (which option can only be entertained if we are confident we will be able to access adequate alternatives for local consumption, and the government provides financial relief to “abandoning” crop owners)

    • Tom, many thanks for your comments. I agree that there is a need to test the domestic labour market. I have suggested in an earlier blog that a national campaign on the UK’s Feed the Nation be set up to invite expressions of interest, requests to apply, offers of work and acceptances based on the jobseeker’s clear understanding of what is involved. This understanding should include not only the nature of the work but also evidence that they have suitable accommodation and have a negative result from the COVID test just before they take up work.

  • I agree that we are facing a severe labour shortage going forward. Germany and Canada are excellent examples of how Government should collaborate with relevant stakeholders to introduce a more flexible working arrangement to address the labour shortage. We should be forming a working group to address this issue as well. However, Approved Employers need to play an active role instead of just being told what they can or cannot do. This is another reason why the Approved Employers of Australia have requested a workshop summit – unfortunately our request has fallen on deaf ears.

  • Thanks for keeping this discussion alive Richard. The inability to harvest crops this coming season will shortchange our farmers, pinch the budgets of consumers as prices of fruit and vegetables increase, and hurt the overall economy. Yes there are risks of spreading Covid-19, but this is from Australia to the islands. Samoa and Vanuatu are free of Covid-19, and it is them who need to make the call as to whether they want to continue with their participation. New Zealand has done better so no case for them to keep the workers from the islands out.

  • “with a strengthening of systems to prevent, detect, contain and treat the virus”. What system? In Victoria none of these things were done. People were locked up in hotels but only casual students monitored this and they were free to do as they pleased. Then the BLM march. And the end of Ramadan and the Eid. Now Victoria has more cases than the whole of Australia did at the peak. And the borders to Victoria remained closed in both directions.

    Risk averse? Of course when a simple matter of monitoring hotels was done with unskilled people on casual jobs with no training at all and no supervision. The complaint now is that 40 aged care homes are infected and hundreds could die because the staff have only 7 weeks training. The staff who monitored the thousands of incoming passengers had no qualifications and no training at all.

    And there was no tender process and offers from the Army and the Police were refused. Why? Whatever happens in the rest of Australia, Victoria is worse off than in February and business is shut. Risk averse? Careless and utterly irresponsible government.

    • Like many of my fellow Melbournians, I too am angry at the mishandling and indeed mismanagement by the Victorian government, leading to an uncontrolled spread of the virus. Despite the strong precautionary action taken by the state government to put overseas arrivals in government funded quarantine, the follow up action was not thought through.

      At least two public policy lessons can be learned. First, contracting out a service works reasonably well in a low-risk setting where the outputs can be monitored and measured easily. Contracting out to deliver complex tasks, such as a bank outsourcing IT functions involving high risk consequences, requires an entirely different set of arrangements. These include retaining certain core functions in-house, including expertise in how the service to be outsourced should be managed. Also needed is a detailed specification of the service to be provided, including the relevant qualifications and ongoing training of staff. Close monitoring of how the contractor is managing service delivery is needed. Also required are regular meetings to resolve problems jointly as soon as an early sign of an issue emerges, and a new service agreement put in place based on the identified changes needed.

      Second lesson is the need to carry out risk assessments of each high risk setting on the ground early in any response, identify the causes of the high risks and work out with those involved how to mitigate these risks. International and local experience show that aged care and meat processing facilities stand out as potential high risk centres for the spread of COVID-19. These responses should not be reactive after evidence emerges that the virus is spreading in these centres.

      These two lessons need to apply to setting up pathways for seasonal workers, tourists or other migrants to enter Australia.

  • Once again Richard you have clearly articulated the significant issues we face in the Horticulture Industry. I’ve participated in three separate teleconferences in the last week with industry representatives and growers and it’s clear, the imminent spring/summer harvest labour shortages is a massive and genuine concern for growers… around the country.

    As an Approved Employer, we are confronted by the brutal reality of what lies ahead. The actual facts of the situation are as follows;

    1. Many Seasonal Workers who have had their stay in Australia extended are likely to want to leave when the borders open. They are fatigued, and want to be reunited with their families.

    2. The numbers of backpackers still in the country has dropped by about 60,000 since the start of the year.

    3. The Australian Government’s propensity to expect Australians, who have been made redundant due to Covid-19, to travel to the regions and pick fruit is just, quite simply, totally unrealistic. In 15 years of being involved in Harvest Labour recruitment, the % of Australians who make up the seasonal harvest workforce, in the areas we operate in, is less than 10%. I cannot see this changing whilst payments are being made to people who are out of work.

    Financial incentives have been offered, in the past, to Australians to travel to regional areas to work in harvest and the outcomes have been completely underwhelming.

    In a nutshell, there are not enough Australians who want to pick fruit!

    4. The most workable solution is for the government to open up the borders so we can bring in fresh Seasonal Workers … in the same way Canada and Germany have done. This could be conducted in a very measured and safe way, ensuring the strictest Covid-19 health protocols are complied with. The horticulture workforce would be re-invigorated with fresh, experienced teams, many who have been coming to Australia for years and who are heavily relied upon by growers.

    What do Australian Primary Producers need to do to have our government respond appropriately? Instead, we are faced with the situation of the government hearing our concerns … but not taking meaningful steps to remedy them?

    • Andrew, thanks for your detailed assessment of the situation facing the horticulture industry affecting the supply of food. In response to your question at the end: What do Australian Primary Producers need to do to have our government respond appropriately? I have suggested in a recent blog https://devpolicy.org/recovering-from-covid-19-a-pacific-pathway-20200501/ that the UK’s Feed the Nation campaign by agriculture labour providers is a good way to show the community and their politicians clear evidence that those job applicants who meet work requirements have been offered work and in that public way provide evidence of the labour shortfall.

  • What Richard could also write about is how there was an enormous covid outbreak amongst imported seasonal pickers in the UK. This was not unrelated to their living conditions. See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hereford-worcester-53420475.
    Another case of interest is a huge covid outbreak in a meat processing factory in NW Germany about a month ago. The staff were mainly Bulgarians and Romanians. Although the firm was very large, the staff were employed by sub-contractors and sub-contractors of sub-contractors. This made tracing even names of workers difficult. They, too, were living in unsanitary, barrack-like conditions. see https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-outbreak-closes-german-meat-packing-plant/a-53374478
    Last, do not forget what was happening to clothing workers in Leicester, England. These were not classic seasonal workers, they were poorly paid (sub-minimum) people from the Indian sub-continent, probably speaking poor English. Their sickness created a local lockdown a month ago. see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-53100321

    • Bernard, you provide clear evidence of how the spread of the virus needs to be tracked and those in close contact isolated and supported. We know the UK has not done this well at all. But my blog reported on how Mexico and Canada responded to a significant outbreak among seasonal workers. The Mexico government took a strong stance, stopping 5,000 workers, and within a week an agreement was reached with the Canadian government, based on setting up a joint working party to monitor conditions and the latter’s commitment to do more inspections on the ground, support workers more and increase penalities for employers.

      The German example also has real lessons for managing outbreaks in terms of work contract arrangements. But the fact that Germany has opened its borders to seasonal workers shows that the government is confident that it has a system in place that will work.

  • Some interesting points here although I think it is important to mention that at this point, Vanuatu (and I think Samoa?) has suspended its participation in labour mobility programmes as a sending country. However, this item relating to talks between Australia and Timor-Leste adds to what I have been saying for some time, which is that this needs to be a regional conversation with all participating as equals: http://www.tatoli.tl/en/2020/07/22/government-continuing-plans-to-send-600-workers-to-australia-with-the-added-cost-of-2-500-per-worker-for-quarantine-stay/

    • Tess, thanks for your response. Yes Vanuatu has suspended participation in labour mobility. As with lockdowns in general, it is a chance for sending governments to put in place new procedures that will enable them to meet the more stringent health safety and tracking requirements that all post Covid-19 migration pathways will require.
      On the plans of the Timor-Leste Government to send workers to Australia, the Australian end of this story https://www.begadistrictnews.com.au/story/6844038/pandemic-restrictions-leave-mango-industry-in-the-lurch/?cs=7 is that Northern Territory Senator Dr Sam McMahon is working with federal government departments to find a way to bring seasonal workers in to do the work on the mango harvest, and believes that a green light will be given soon.

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