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Grower Sam DiMaria, left, gets along well with his Mexican workers like Pedro Villaneuva.

Grower Sam DiMaria, left, gets along well with his Mexican workers like Pedro Villaneuva.

Without foreign workers to help him thin, prune, and harvest his 82 acres of apple and pear crops, Sam DiMaria almost certainly would be out of business, or at least his operation would have to be scaled back drastically.

"The Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program saved my bacon, it saved my farm," said DiMaria, who has been growing fruit in the Okanagan for most of his life.

The national program, which has been in existence in Canada since 1974, was introduced to British Columbia in 2004 and has been growing exponentially in the province since its inception.

Mike Wallis, general manager of the Western Agriculture Labour Initiative, an organization that oversees and facilitates the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program in British Columbia, said he expects about 3,000 Mexican workers will be toiling on B.C. orchards, vineyards, vegetable farms, and nurseries this year. That’s up from 2,200 in 2007.

DiMaria has nothing but praise for the program and the seasonal workers he began employing last year.

"I signed up and brought in ten Mexican workers last year," he said. "It was like a breath of fresh air. They were happy to be here, they had a great attitude, they are very clean people, they don’t smoke and they don’t drink, they’re punctual and they work hard."

Spanish

Although most of the workers don’t speak English, DiMaria said it wasn’t a problem. "I understand a little Spanish, and I carry a Spanish phrase book with me," he said. "You’re able to communicate one way or another. When you get people who are willing to work and work hard, you don’t mind if you have a couple difficulties."

DiMaria, who is of Italian ancestry, is planning to learn Spanish so he can communicate more easily with his workers. He said he is bringing in 14 Mexican workers this year.

It’s not an inexpensive process. Besides having to pay return airfare ($1,200), he must provide suitable accommodation, health care insurance, minimum wages, and transportation to amenities. Workers must be married or have dependents and are allowed to stay for a maximum of eight months.

DiMaria said he first ran into labor problems when a family who was working for him bought their own orchard.

"In 2006, I was on pins and needles," he said. "The way I got by was most of my crop was hailed out in 2006. Each year leading up to that, it was getting tougher and tougher to find people to work on the orchard."

Labor has become a huge issue in all parts of the Okanagan Valley, where workers are in high demand and low supply in almost every segment of the work force.

Cherry picking

DiMaria said many of the workers who migrate to the valley from elsewhere in Canada gravitate towards cherry picking.

"The cherry industry is able to pay higher per-unit wages, and the hours are flexible and more conducive to the lifestyles of young people. That means that a lot of workers who used to thin apples aren’t available in September. And they are also going to vineyards."

Almost half of the foreign seasonal workers who come to British Columbia work in the lower mainland and Vancouver area on berry and vegetable farms. About 30 to 35 percent are employed in the interior of the province.

Although most participants have deemed the program successful, there have been problems to deal with, Wallis said.

In January, a group arrived from Mexico and witnessed Vancouver’s first snowfall.

"They all wanted to go home," he said.

His organization, Western Agriculture Labour Initiative, deals with complaints from both employers and employees. Quite often, though, the Mexican workers will go directly to their consulate with complaints.

"If it’s a legitimate complaint, the consulate will make a written report to me," Wallis said. "I don’t consider snowfall to be a legitimate complaint though."

He said overseeing the seasonal workers program isn’t without its challenges.

"It’s not perfect. You’re talking about managed migration of people across international borders. A small percentage [of employers] are unhappy with the performance of the workers, but for 95 percent of the participants, it’s win/win for both sides."

Meanwhile, B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association has produced employee/employer handbooks and will be introducing them to growers in"kitchen table sessions," General Manager Glen Lucas said.

"We’re encouraging people to contact us, and we’re going to start phoning ­people and getting workshops off the ground," he said. The association, through the South Okanagan Immigration and Community Services, also hopes to offer the program to Punjabi growers in their own language.