Fruit & Vegetable Magazine

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B.C. growers increasingly buying into seasonal worker program

March 31, 2008  By David Schmidt

After years of relying on the Farm
Labour Contractor system for their labour needs, B.C. farmers are
turning to the new Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

Mike Wallis

After years of relying on the Farm Labour Contractor system for their labour needs, B.C. farmers are turning to the new Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

Although the program has been in place in Ontario since 1971, it took until 2004 for it to come to B.C., and then only after considerable lobbying. Unlike other provinces in Canada that obtain workers from Mexico or the Caribbean, the B.C. program is currently limited to Mexican workers.

Despite getting off to a late start in 2004, nine employers in four sectors brought in 47 workers. Last year, there were 684 workers for 67 employers in 11 sectors. Farms had anywhere from two to 60 workers. Raspberry Industry Development Council manager Mike Wallis, the program’s acting coordinator, believes that number will grow to 1,200 to 1,400 workers in 2006, although others say the number could be as high as 3,000.

Last year’s program had at least one incident of substandard worker housing. As a result, Human Resources Development Canada insists proposed housing be inspected before it will approve any applications. This past winter, Wallis worked with HRDC, local governments and the Mexican consulate to develop housing guidelines and inspection procedures.

“Each municipality has their own guidelines so we adapted Ontario’s guidelines developed in Ontario for SAWP,” Wallis said. “Housing has be safe, properly ventilated, have potable water and adequate washroom facilities.”

Wallis is also developing a central fee-for-service organization to handle the SAWP program, which could be in place by Spring 2006. While that will add more cost to the premium program, Wallis insists the benefits justify it.

“What is the cost of advertising, hiring and training when a worker stays for only a short time?” he asks. “The cost is balanced by reliability. With this program, you have a reliable workforce that is ready to work every morning.”

Wallis stresses that communication is vital to get the most out of the Mexican workers. “Communicating with employees with no language or cultural barriers is difficult. Communication with SAWP workers, most of whom don’t speak English well, if at all, can be even more difficult.”

Two growers who participated in the program over the past two years are Abbotsford raspberry and vegetable growers Sukh Kahlon and Jerry Alamwala.

Kahlon had four SAWP workers in 2004 and 10 last year. This year, he has again requested 10 workers and already had two by mid-February. “I don’t want more than 10 because it becomes a management issue.”

Alamwala had 14 workers in 2004 and 18 last year – eight from April to November and 10 who transferred from other farms in September. While the program allows farm-to-farm transfers, he notes, “there’s no guarantee you will get them. We didn’t get all the transferees we wanted or were expecting.”

Instead of transferring, some workers choose to go home after five months away. Even though the program allows workers to stay up to eight months or until December 15th, most are ready to go home by the end of November. Alamwala also notes growers who plan to transfer employees during the season should settle the transportation cost issue, since the first employer is “on the hook” for those costs.

While Mexicans are “always ready to work,” both growers stress they are usually unskilled.

“Don’t expect huge productivity the first day,” Kahlon says. Alamwala reminds growers to train workers correctly. “They’ll do the job exactly how you tell them to so if you tell them wrong, they’ll do it wrong.”

Since most Mexican workers are skilled at adapting to an established pace, Alamwala says they should not be put with “slow” workers. This makes them ideal for picking or riding on a machine that “sets the pace.”

Kahlon compliments the “streamlined” nature of the program, noting “you can have workers four weeks after your application.”

After picking up his workers at the airport, he first takes them out for lunch and grocery shopping and supplies them with quality boots, gloves and raingear. He also gives them a calling card so they can call their loved ones back home to tell them they have arrived safely

“If you do that, it comes back to you,” Kahlon says.

He stresses the program is not cheap, saying airfare, accommodation and other costs add $3 to $3.50/hr to the base wage of $8.60/hr. He notes employers have little say in who they get since the Mexican consulate hires the workers.

“If you hire locally, you get to meet the employee first. With SAWP, you don’t,” he emphasizes, adding employers are trying to press the Mexican government for more stringent screening.

Offsetting the extra costs is the fact labour is available when needed rather than at the whim of an FLC, says Kahlon, noting “you can improve your yield if you do the work on time.”

He says workers are happy to be in the program – many make ten times what they could in Mexico.

“If it’s helping you and helping them, there couldn’t be anything better than that.”

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