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Foreign workers are ‘absolutely critical’ in the Okanagan Valley

The Okanagan's fruit farming season begins soon, but it wouldn't be possible without the help of foreign workers.

"Canada does not have the necessary manpower” to fill the demand in agricultural workers, explains Stephen Fuhr, MP for Kelowna-Lake Country.

“Kelowna has a very big food production industry – ranging from cherries to apples and other fruits. The farmers heavily rely on foreign workers for a defined period of time to get the fruit from the tree to the market,” the MP says.

<who>Photo Credit: Wikipedia

One-third of all workers in the Okanagan Valley are temporary employees.

Fuhr says, temporary foreign workers are therefore, “absolutely critical and many farms could not produce enough fruit without them.”

For decades the Okanagan Valley has been a vital part of agricultural production in British Columbia. Total farming revenue in Central Okanagan in 2016 increased by 24.4% to over $120 million, states a report by the Central Okanagan Economic Profile for Agriculture (COEPA). According to the same report, “[the] seasonal nature of agriculture means large numbers of workers are needed on a seasonal basis in the spring, summer and fall.”

<who>Photo Credit: Similkameen Valley

Over 60 years ago, Canada experienced an agricultural labour shortage and Mexico dealt with rural unemployment. Canada’s 1966 institution of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) battled this issue, which aided the Okanagan region’s tree fruit industry notably.

Under this program, farms can employ temporary foreign workers (TFW) from Mexico and a number of Caribbean countries, only when Canadian workers are unavailable. According to Fuhr, most TFW in the Okanagan Valley are from Mexico. He adds that these workers are absolutely critical because Canada does not have the necessary workforce.

Although farms have to pay the workers’ travel and accommodation, the program still seems to be profitable for the agriculture industry. This can be explained simply: Stephen Fuhr describes that Canadians are generally not willing to do such hard work for a minimum wage salary.

<who>Photo Credit: Stock photo

Despite the economic benefits for Canadian farms, the program has faced intense criticism. In 2011, the Quebec Human Rights Commission reported that TFW “were victims of systematic discrimination.”

Last September, Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA), a non-profit organization, expressed its concern “for the safety, mental health, and well-being of migrant farm workers” in the Okanagan Valley. Last Spring, the Mexican consulate even refused to send workers to nine Okanagan farms, due to complaints filed for housing standard violations.

Next week, Fuhr will meet with the Mexican ambassador to discuss issues that local farmers expressed to him. Fuhr said, “he will address their concerns and hopes that the meeting will bear some fruit.”

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