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Mexican workers address labour shortage

Pemberton mayor takes advantage of seasonal farm worker program



Pemberton’s North Arm Farm, owned by the town’s mayor, Jordan Sturdy, has become the first farm in the region to take advantage of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. The farm has added two workers from Mexico for the peak summer and fall months.

This program allows foreign workers to meet the temporary seasonal needs of Canadian agricultural producers during peak harvesting and planting periods. As with acquiring any employment visa, to qualify for the program a producer must prove that there is a shortage of qualified Canadian workers.

According to Sturdy, a consistent labour force is one of the big three problems facing the agricultural sector.

"The agricultural sector in the valley has a number of problems. First, there’s the issue of succession. What’s the succession plan for a farm? The farm is my pension plan; I’ll need to sell it when I retire. Alternatively, can I rationalize giving it to my girls should they be so inclined to run a farm? The second thing is the cost of food. It’s ridiculously low thanks to globalization. People spend less that 10 per cent of their gross revenues on food. Both of those are structural problems, the on-the-ground issue is labour," said Sturdy.

He points out the structural problem of food costs directly impacts a farmer’s ability to maintain a stable workforce. While Sturdy says he has no problem finding people to take jobs at the farm for his $9/hr starting wage, the minute a higher wage job comes available, employees leave.

"I can’t afford to pay someone $15-$20 an hour to weed carrots," said Sturdy.

Under the terms of the SAWP, foreign workers receive wages commensurate with those of Canadian workers, employer-paid international transportation, and health and medical benefits, as well as the same labour protection under the law as Canadians. The base salary is $8.60 an hour, with benefits and travel, the costs work out to approximately $12.50 an hour.

"They say that a worker can make in one day, what they make in Mexico in a week," said Sturdy.

To be eligible for the program workers must be married with children. By choosing to work in Canada, they can send a substantial amount of money home over the five-month period of the program.

Although contracts can be extended up to eight months, Sturdy finds it hard to imagine that many would take the offer.

"These aren’t machines we’re talking about, these are people and they miss their kids and families," he said.

Instead of putting in extra months, workers tend to put in extra hours, putting in an average of three or four hours a day more than their Canadian counterparts.

While North Arm Farm is the first farm in the Pemberton Valley to take advantage of SAWP, the program has proved very successful in other jurisdictions. Sturdy is optimistic that the SAWP program might just be the answer to the chronic challenge of farm labour.

"Driedigier Farms, in the Fraser Valley, produces berries and they now have 200 Mexican workers, they have even built houses on some of the fields for their workers."

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