Okanagan growers’ dependence on foreign workers shows as pandemic continues

B.C. Growers’ Association says locals making up for the shortfall, as apple growers are “very concerned”

It’s harvest time in the Okanagan and with Labour Day fast approaching, fruit growers are hoping that for the second time this season they’ll have enough fieldworkers to bring in their crops.

As the 2020 growing season lurched from late winter frosts into a COVID-19 spring, it highlighted the orchard industry’s vulnerable reliance on temporary foreign workers.

According to B.C. Fruit Tree Growers’ Association’s (BCFGA) general manager Glen Lucas, this year got off to a bad start when a cold snap “decimated” as much as 40 per cent of the Okanagan’s cherry crop.

While the crop loss from cold weather impacted growers’ initial demands for labour, the shortfall of seasonal field-hands coming from outside B.C. and Canada due to the pandemic had surveyed cherry growers anticipating that up to a further 15 per cent of the cherry crop would be left to rot in the field.

That was before the cherry harvest went into high gear in mid-July when Lucas said the BCFGA appealed to unemployed locals.

Together with about 4,000 seasonal workers who made the trek from Latin America and the Caribbean amid the pandemic, the influx of resident workers was enough to bring in most of the remaining cherry crop this year.

The outlook for this year’s apple harvest is probably better, said Lucas.

Apples are less labour intensive, he pointed out, especially because they ripen more gradually than cherries.

All the same, Lucas emphasized the region’s apple growers “are very concerned” that another labour shortage could dent this year’s haul by the time the harvest ends in mid-fall.

Gala apples are ready for picking in the South Okanagan, said Lucas, adding “we do need the labour” among local pickers.

READ MORE: Summerland campground to provide COVID-safe accommodations for temporary farm-workers

Lucas contrasted the association’s “measured position” on federal immigration policy with some Okanagan labour activists that, in his words, want migrant farmhands to get permanent resident (PR) status “on day one.”

Radical Action with Migrants’ (RAMA) spokesperson Robyn Bunn said Monday that granting immediate PR status is the only way to guarantee foreign farmworkers’ human rights during their stays in the Okanagan.

At the best of times, Bunn pointed out foreign labourers “are completely reliant on the goodwill of their employers” under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers program.

If fired by host growers for any reason, at any point in the season, she said workers are sent back to “sending countries” where job prospects are generally thin.

An order by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry had instructed temporary foreign workers not to leave host farms during B.C.’s shutdown except for emergencies and to access medical and dental care, said Lucas.

But he said Henry rescinded this restriction on July 2.

Temporary foreign workers had previously relied on host growers to deliver groceries and other daily necessities, said Lucas.

But Bunn said some workers had reported that growers sometimes didn’t deliver enough food, while many workers also reported not being able to send cash remittances to their families outside Canada.

READ MORE: Migrant workers expatriated after breaching West Kelowna farm’s ‘discriminatory’ policies

Lucas said that Okanagan growers have been improving farm campsites for temporary workers of all nationalities for many years.

He said the BCGFA had hoped to quarantine foreign workers arriving in Kelowna, but that a large enough facility couldn’t be found.

Instead, Lucas said the B.C. government put up workers, arriving mostly from Jamaica, at a Richmond facility.

Farm housing in B.C. “is a regulatory quagmire,” said Bunn.

She stressed that shared accommodations on many Okanagan orchards wouldn’t meet provincial hygiene standards in the event of a renewed outbreak of COVID-19.

With a reliable vaccine for COVID-19 likely in the distant offing, Bunn said, “We’re asking these workers to come here at risk to their health — to work in our industry.”

She said they deserve permanent residency out of respect.

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