Problems faced by migrant farm workers in the South Okanagan go far beyond the two Mexicans found living in squalid housing according to one South Okanagan volunteer.
“But to try to change things anymore, I have given up. It is just like nothing ever changes. And we have been doing this for over six years,” said Sandy Diaz-Hart, who continues to teach English to migrant workers.
The two men, employed under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program at a Summerland Farm, were being housed in a dirty garage. According to Bob Cowles, a Canadian worker who was also working at the farm, conditions were deplorable for the Mexican workers.
“They’re not cattle. They’re not livestock. They’re human beings,” Cowles said.
Pictures taken at the farm show the outdoor cooking area just metres away from the portable toilet. Inside, the men were given pressboard sheets for sleeping mats, while the garage had no electricity or running water. The two men have been removed from the situation and transferred to a farm in the Fraser Valley. But according to Diaz-Hart, their situation isn’t unique.
“There is a lot of problems. I don’t know how the farmers just seem to get away with it. Sometimes I get very upset because it seems like everybody knows, but nobody is doing anything about it,” she said. “Here in Cawston and Keremeos, there has been a lot of incidents, a lot of workers that sometimes cannot handle the treatment, or the abuse or the situation. I know that two just left yesterday and another two got transferred.”
Diaz-Hart said she has heard of situations ranging from overcrowded worker housing, insect infestations and farmers refusing to transport workers to town for shopping (required under SAWP) to tax fraud, with a farmer not supplying T4 slips as required.
“Everybody is making money out of these guys. They pay CPP. When would they ever collect the pension? Never. They pay their own health insurance, they pay unemployment, they pay taxes,” said Diaz-Hart. “Everybody is benefiting from these guys being here, but we don’t seem to be looking after them in the way we should.”
BCFGA president Fred Steele said what happened with the two workers in Summerland was unfortunate but proof the system works.
“It’s a complaint-based system and that is the way it works. My understanding is they removed them and they are working somewhere else,” said Steele. “If somebody complains to the BCFGA, we immediately get in touch with the consulate. At the same time, the BCFGA can’t go throughout the hills and woods looking for problems either.”
Diaz-Hart said many of the workers are not fluent in English, so communicating their complaint can pose a problem, and are afraid to speak out, fearing to be sent home or face reprisals.
“The Mexican consulate wants everything to be really good, they don’t want anyone to make waves,” she said.
Steele said the workers shouldn’t be afraid to come forward, reiterating that the two workers from Summerland weren’t sent home.
“That wouldn’t be fair either. But if it is a question of housing or it is a question of transportation or any of those things and the rules are not being followed, then we have to know about it,” said Steele. “If somebody has a complaint, we want to hear about it. If we do not look after and make sure this program is fair and run properly, we are going to run into the problems that happened with the Temporary Foreign Worker program.”
Steele said there isn’t any formal instruction for employers using the SAWP program to educate them about their responsibilities, but the BCFGA does work through the application process with those that ask.
“We have made it abundantly clear again and again, follow the rules. We don’t need the problems, the workers don’t need the problems and the industry doesn’t need the problems,” said Steele, adding that just a few bad employers can affect the image for the entire industry.
Diaz-Hart said conditions for the migrant workers are better than they once were.
“There are some farmers that are very conscious, and have very good conditions for the guys. But there are some that are not so good,” she said. “There is so much more people need to know, that people need to be aware of.”
About 1,500 foreign workers are employed under the SAWP program each year.
They begin arriving in March, taking up work in orchards and vineyards and heading home after harvest.
— With files from John Arendt and Steve Arstad