The Temporary Foreign Workers Program has come under heavy fire and critiscism this year as reports surfaced across the country about system and worker abuses.
Here in the Similkameen, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program is possibly the most prominent form of hiring of foreign workers.
There are problems with this program in the Lower Similkameen as well, but most of the time residents of the valley will never hear about them.
That’s because the foreign labourers, for the most part, feel they are stuck between a rock and a hard place – if they complain to advance their cause, they are almost certainly going to lose their jobs.
Due to immigration restrictions, none of the workers selected for the Temporary Workers Program is eligible for immigration to Canada, so loss of participation in the program would represent a severe financial blow to the individuals and their families in Mexico.
According to Fred Steele, President of the BC Fruit Growers Association, the Mexican Consulate oversees the program on behalf of Mexican workers.
“We pass on complaints we hear to the consulate, and ask what we can do to help,” Steele said. The BCFGA is also concerned about ensuring that Canadians who are available to work in the agriculture industry are employed as well.
“We are concerned about Canadians having jobs,” he said, “the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program is a supplement, they’re not taking over the work. We’re keeping an eye on that.”
Steele said all abuses and complaints should be passed on the BCFGA or the consulate of the foreign worker involved.
“It’s a complaint based system,” he said, “if there are complaints, let’s hear them.”
Steele said the Seasonal Agricultural Workers program actually provided more oversight than other foreign worker programs because governments were involved, not just the employer and employee.
Steele said consulate officials inspected farmers’ premises prior to the season to ensure compliance with respect to things like housing. He couldn’t say whether or not surprise inspections were conducted through the growing season.
In a recent case of farm labourer abuse in Summerland, Steele said the workers were removed from the farm in question and relocated to another farm by the consulate.
“What happens, is the farmer loses his help, and also the opportunity to participate in the program,” Steele said.
“It’s not that we have a problem, it’s that the problem gets resolved,” Steele concluded, “but we can’t solve them if we don’t know about them.”
Temporary foreign workers’ advocate Sandy Diaz knows only too well the problems facing foreign workers in the Similkameen. She’s been looking out for foreign workers – largely Mexican, as she speaks Spanish fluently – for several years, and understands very well the trials and tribulations faced by participants in the temporary workers program in the Similkameen valley.
“The workers are facing the same problems as in previous years,” she said earlier this month, describing one instance on a local farm where workers were fully exposed to orchard spray, without so much as a paper mask to protect them.
Workers’ accommodations are a particularly sore point for Sandy, as she’s seen many situations where workers are living in third world conditions.
“I’ve seen eight men in a single, tiny room,” she said, “living with insect infestations and no cleaning supplies provided.
“The farmer says to Revenue Canada that he has a washing machine, but when the workers arrive, they find it doesn’t work.They complain to the farmer, who tells them to go buy new clothes.
“There is no working laundromat in Keremeos – how are they supposed to wash their clothes?”
For Sandy, frustration has been mounting on an annual basis, as she is called upon to deal with similar situations, year after year.
“Guys tell me they have to make the best of it,” she says, “but things aren’t getting any better. The rules regarding first aid treatment for workers and standards of living are all just words. Inspectors visit at the beginning of the season, and everything is in order.”
Diaz has even seen apparent tax fraud take place between the workers and their employers. Earlier this spring she attempted to help out several Mexican workers who worked for a vineyard owner that has property in Oliver and Cawston. Seven temporary workers were hired to work the properties over the past eight years, and during that time, several workers never received their T-4’s. Others had discrepancies between their time worked and the amount showing on their T-4. In spite of repeated calls to the farmer for the T-4’s and his promise to supply them, Diaz is still waiting for them.
“All of the workers had money taken from their pay for taxes,” she said, “but the government has no record.”
Diaz has also heard of instances where workers spend an entire working day on one farm, then get “lent out” to do work at other locations.
“They are supposed to be paid each month on the 15th and 30th,” she said, “employers are also supposed to run them into town in order to shop for groceries – many farmers simply don’t do it.”
Diaz’ ability to help the Mexican labourers get a fair deal is compromised by two factors: an inability to get Mexican labourers to come forward officially with their concerns, and her own lack of official status. By her own admission, she is “a friend, community person, someone who cares,” about the labourers, but she does not represent any official interests. Several years ago, she worked as a liason with the labourers through the South Okanagan Women in Need Society, but that arrangement ended when certain job restrictions impeded her ability to help.
On the Mexican labourers’ part, they have seen all too often what happens to whistle blowers; more often than not, the farmer will not renew their sponsorship, or will send them home. For the most part, the farmworker has no recourse.
After all these years, Diaz is getting increasingly frustrated by what she sees. She continues to volunteer a huge part of her life to helping the labourers, nonetheless.
“If I’m not around, who will do it?” she asks, “Why can’t they get respect?”
Diaz says the program desperately needs an advocate – someone with authority – to make surprise inspections and ensure farmers are keeping their end of the bargain.
“I know – I see these things,” she said, “if I make specific comments on a workers’ behalf, that has an affect on workers and ultimately their families.”
“Why can’t the government create something, appoint someone with authority to try and resolve these inadequacies?”
That’s a question also being asked by Summerland resident Ken, who has vacationed in the same location in Mexico for several years. He tells the story of Roger, a Mexican who Ken met while on holiday.
“Roger had been employed for the past eight years by a Cawston farmer. “He didn’t return to the Similkameen this year,” Ken said, “last year he stayed until late October, in an unheated, uninsulated trailer where he froze.
“The farmer refused to provide any form of heat, so Roger complained to the consulate, and as a result, wasn’t invited back.”
Roger was lucky – he managed to stay in the program, but ended up on the east coast.
“He’s now working in Nova Scotia, but I understand he was replaced by the farmer in Cawston with two more workers,” Ken said.
Roger also left a number of personal articles at the Cawston farm, under the expectation he would be returning. His chances of retrieving them are slim.
Ken is not connected to the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program in any way, but as a Canadian he realizes the significance of stories like Roger’s.
“This isn’t the way we do things here in Canada,” Ken said, “it gives Canada’s reputation a black eye internationally.”
There are 102 temporary foreign workers in the Keremeos – Cawston area, including a handful of Jamaicans and Guatamaleans. Most foreign workers enter the valley in April and leave in Novemenber, but some arrive here as early as February.