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Offshore workers program growing in Nova Scotia

growing in Nova Scotia


March 31, 2008
By Dan Wooley

Topics

Nova Scotia farmers are coming to
appreciate the tireless labour of offshore seasonal workers in the
province’s horticultural industry.

7680446Nova Scotia farmers are coming to appreciate the tireless labour of offshore seasonal workers in the province’s horticultural industry.

Workers from the Commonwealth Caribbean nations and Mexico are becoming an increasingly visible presence in Nova Scotia’s fields and orchards, principally in the Annapolis Valley. In the past several years, there has been a five-fold increase in their numbers from just 40 in 2000 to some 200 in 2005.

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Over time, more and more Nova Scotia growers have found the foreign workers to be very reliable. “Canadians aren’t prepared to be available to me 24/7,” said Charles Keddy. “They (the offshore workers) are ready to go to work if you have a trailer to load at two in the morning. They don’t complain.”

Keddy recently chaired an information session on the employment of seasonal foreign labour in Nova Scotia horticulture. He sits as a representative for Horticulture Nova Scotia on an offshore labour committee that works with Service Canada, the federal government department that administers the Commonwealth Caribbean and Mexican Seasonal Workers Program.

“It is expensive labour, the most expensive labour on your farm,” admits Keddy. “But you have workers ready to work in the morning and they don’t watch the clock. They work until the work is done. Sixty to 70 hours is not unrealistic for these workers and if they are on piecework, you better stand out of the way.”

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Nova Scotia grower Charles Keddy. 

“They aren’t city slickers,” adds Andy Vermeulen. “They are farm boys. They came up here to work and you have to put in the hours to keep up with them.”

Vermeulen was one of the first Annapolis Valley growers to employ Caribbean workers in 1989. “These guys do a good job for you,” he says.

Vermeulen admits he would not be able to hand-harvest his 175 acres without offshore labour.

Vida Davis from Service Canada’s Halifax office said her department’s objective in ensuring a reliable farm labour supply is also to ensure the seasonal contract workers are not exploited.

When a farmer places his or her initial order for farm labour with Service Canada, he or she will have to furnish comprehensive documentation, including information on the type of crops and size of operation.

She stresses that Service Canada will not assume responsibility for the contracts between the workers and the growers. The department is also not responsible for inspecting worker housing to ensure bunkhouses meet accommodation standards. In Nova Scotia, housing inspectors located in each county will do the bunkhouse inspections at the request of farmers. Department guidelines require both the inspections and bunkhouses meet Service Canada’s requirements for housing standards.

Deborah Poirier, Davis’ departmental colleague, said Service Canada collects a $150 visa fee for every worker a grower brings into the country and for which the producer can later be reimbursed.

The grower will also be responsible for each seasonal worker’s airfare, but it also will be partially refundable, says Poirier.

Growers will also have to provide Workers’ Compensation for work-related injuries, plus coverage for other medical services during their term of Nova Scotia employment. To date, Nova Scotia farmers have not been successful in getting MSI health care coverage from the provincial government for their offshore seasonal workers.

John Wright, Jamaica’s farm labour liaison, told the growers at the information session any medical coverage for Jamaican seasonal workers will not cost employers anything. Egbert Lionel, Eastern Caribbean States labour liaison officer, added his organization also has a compensation scheme, “so there won’t be any hassle to you as an employer.”

The process
When Service Canada receives a job order, first preference in recruiting must be given to Canadian workers, explains Poirier. If none are found after four weeks of advertising the position within the job bank, Service Canada will then contact the Foreign Agricultural Management Services, located in Mississauga, Ontario, to access its pool of offshore job applicants. FARMS, for its part, recommends growers place their labour orders at least eight weeks before they need the workers with their local Service Canada human resource centre.

FARMS meets the labour needs of more than 1,600 Ontario employers
on top of the Nova Scotia growers. The organizations can also make their travel arrangements for contracting
growers.

Mina Vivar-Dy, program coordinator, said the labour order will be sent to one of the participating countries after FARMS has ensured every piece of information for the order has been completed. She assures growers that “once you place your order, FARMS takes over. You don’t need to worry; that is what your $50 administration fee is for.”

Keddy adds the fee “is the best $50 a farmer can spend,” as FARMS handles all of the paper work.

Once a worker has arrived, if there is any problem with the worker, “we will be on your farm within 48 hours to resolve the problem,” assures Wright. If any worker breaches his contract with a grower, he adds, the employer will be reimbursed for the airfare to return the worker home.

Lionel says they also have a program coordinator and selection committee to recruit and screen suitable workers for the farm labour pool.

George Brome, the Barbados liaison officer, said there is a very low incidence of worker contract breaches or “AWOLS” (absences from work).


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