Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON – It takes a village to pack the peach harvest. Between local workers, 22 Jamaican men and 14 Mexican women, it’s a well-oiled team that packs peaches in Fred Meyer’s orchard.
|It takes a team of 22 Jamaican men and 14 Mexican women to help pick and pack the peach harvest at Fred Meyers’ farm. Bonuses are paid for years of service and performance.
“They’re professionals at what they do,” says Meyers, “I take my hat off to them.”
His operation is typical in that many offshore workers return year after year under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). In some cases, they’ve been through two rotations of the orchard, replanting new stock after 15 years. Meyer’s sister manages human resources on the peach and floral greenhouse operation, organizing barbecues and social activities.
Compared to what’s happening in U.S. orchards, SAWP is considered a reliable model that pays minimum wage, offers work permits up to eight months, requires signatory countries to recruit and enrolls workers in provincial health plans. Under the auspices of Human Resources and Social Development Canada, the program is administered by the non-profit Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS) with about 1,500 Ontario grower subscribers. They pay the equivalent of 2.7 per cent of their payroll to the Worker Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) each year.
In contrast, Washington state, for example, hosts a large percentage of seasonal workers who are illegal or arrive under the federal guest-worker program for $8.67 per hour. Due to tightening immigration laws, farm employers in Washington state were pleading for workers last fall and in fact, were unable to get all their apples in the bin. A pilot to use prison labourers at $22 per hour failed because they picked at half the rate of the professional seasonal pickers.
In Canada, there’s a second route for migrant workers. Operated by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, it’s called Temporary Foreign Workers Program for occupations reporting low levels of formal training. Private recruiters are involved in identifying seasonal workers and under this program, there is no standard contract.
It was under this temporary workers’ program that the Peruvian chicken workers entered Canada, with 11 tragically killed in an off-site accident last spring. The media glare widened to how seasonal workers live and work on Canadian farms. That focus isn’t going away with CBC National News airing a feature on July 13.
“I’ve given more than 60 interviews in the last six months,” says Ken Forth, a broccoli grower and chair of the Labour Issues Coordinating Committee (LICC), labour section chair Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association and president, FARMS. “It’s been an opportunity to tell our side of the story – about a program that has checks and balances, and responsibilities for all parties. The program has been hugely successful because workers are able to educate their children back home with high school and university degrees.”
Horticulture attracts undue focus with its 16,000 SAWP workers compared to the estimated 95,000 in Ontario who work in many other sectors says Ken Linington, general manager, LICC.
Negative press coverage aside, many seasonal workers value the opportunity to be paid more in an hour than they would in a day in their home countries. Return rates are 82 per cent for Mexicans and 80 per cent for the Caribbean, says Sue Williams, FARMS manager. They pay into the Canada Pension Plan, and as such, are eligible for pensions prorated to their contributions, at age 65.
“Those who do best have the capacity to work at the same pace as others, to complete the term and have stable family relationships back at home,” says Linington.
In the event that seasonal workers are injured on the job, WSIB has a hotline to deal specifically with those cases.
A recent Toronto Star story reported that WSIB is working on extending seasonal workers’ full benefits from four to 12 weeks and to potentially extend visas until active treatment is completed. A website is to be launched this summer on workers’ rights.
Recently, the prevention branch of WSIB was moved under the Ontario Ministry of Labour. As part of the exercise, the Law Commission of Ontario has been tasked to offer clearer
recommendations for vulnerable workers which will impact those in agriculture as well as all other sectors. The commission’s interim report is due the first week of August and will be posted at www.lco-cdo.org according to Norine Nathanson, project head.
The long-term issue for agriculture, says Linington, is access to a range of labour skills. The industry is looking forward to leadership from Sara Mann, a professor in strategic human resource management and organization behavior. She has just organized a first-ever conference of North American professionals at the University of Guelph to discuss agriculture’s needs. In the weeks ahead, she will be launching a study of best formats to train. Is it on-line webinars? Is it classroom-style? Is it on-the-job training?
Her pioneering research in agriculture human resources will be welcomed.