B.C. looking beyond Mexico to find fruit pickers

Posted by admin on Mar 27th, 2008

Joanne Lee-Young, with a file from Jeff Holubitsky, Canwest News Service. Vancouver Sun; With a file from Canwest News Service. Thursday, March 27, 2008

To cope with a continuing shortage in apple and cherry pickers, B.C. fruit growers are expecting to hire about 50 per cent more temporary foreign workers than they did last year. And in an attempt to diversify this expanding pool, they are reaching beyond Mexico to find similar workers from the Caribbean. Mike Wallace of the Western Agriculture Labour Initiative (WALI) said that while a contract with workers from Mexico is going into its fifth year, a new one with the Commonwealth of Carribean Islands was only hammered out at the end of July 2007. By then, last year’s picking season was already in full swing, so only 10 workers from the Caribbean were brought to B.C. In total, Wallace expects that up to 3,000 workers from Mexico and the Carribean will be needed in B.C. for the 2008 season.

Last year, the final tally approached 2,200. While 95 per cent of these workers will still be from Mexico, Wallace said that “you don’t want to have all your eggs in one basket. There could be changes in politics or whatever.” However, he added that various bureaucratic stipulations make it difficult to look to other countries for seasonal agricultural workers.

B.C. fruit growers first started using temporary foreign workers in 2004, when the program was launched with just nine employers who hired 47 people from Mexico. By 2007, more than 200 employers were involved. “So, there has been phenomenal growth,” said Wallace.

WALI was started two years ago based on a template used in Ontario and Quebec to bring much larger numbers of temporary foreign workers there.

Wallace noted that Jamaica now has a liaison office in Kelowna. Other countries in the Commonwealth include Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States: St. Martin, St. Vincent and St. Lucia. The first 10 workers last year, for example, were all from St. Martin, even though the Caribbean contract with B.C. is negotiated with all countries in the block.

Meanwhile, in Alberta, a labour-starved town is considering bringing in video-conferencing technology and a Spanish-speaking priest — all in an effort to make life more comfortable for temporary workers from Mexico.

The first of more than 200 workers from the Chipala region, west of Mexico City, are due to arrive in Barrhead, Alta., about 100 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, where they will fill vacant jobs at BarrCana Home Manufacturing.

“These guys want to come right now and we want to bring them right now,” BarrCana vice-president Richard Hadjuk said.

“But we don’t want them to wake up in the morning, go to the plant and come back to their rooms. We want them to have a more satisfying experience.”

The idea of bringing foreign workers from around the world to Alberta is not new. More than 1,200 Mexicans, for example, are already working in factories, restaurants, and the oilpatch.

The workers headed for Barrhead will earn $14 to $16.53 an hour at the manufactured-home plant, which is designed to produce about four to six houses a day. It currently operates with about 200 workers, but needs 450.

“In Mexico, they live on $400 to $800 a month, and these are people with families of four or five kids,” Hadjuk said.

The company has constructed a camp for the Mexicans at the plant site, where they will live three to a room — except for married couples, who will have a room to themselves.

Rents will be $400 and workers will buy their own food, which the company will purchase in bulk.


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