Having to rely on migrant labor has never been an easy game for fruit growers in British Columbia, Canada.

While a highly mobile work force—usually students from Quebec and other parts of Canada—has traditionally given the industry access to a large pool of people able and willing to move to where work needs to be done, Bruno Gutknecht remembers some horror stories.

“A month before picking, a person starts to get tensed up,” says Gutknecht, who has seen 52 crops since he returned to his parents’ farm near Vernon in 1960 and took over the business. He now farms 70 acres of orchard with his son Kevin.

“Are we going to have enough help, and what kind of help are we going to have? Are they going to be productive?” he says, recalling the questions he’d ask. “We used to have around 25 people at one time to take the crop off, because some of them weren’t very fast, and some wouldn’t show up. You’d have 25 and end up maybe with six, and the others wouldn’t come. It was hit and miss, and it just doesn’t work.”

But that changed when British Columbia signed on with the Seasonal ­Agricultural Workers Program in 2004. Gutknecht began participating in 2005, and hasn’t looked back.

“Now, we harvest the crop with half of the people,” he says.

Gutknecht isn’t alone.

Since the program launched in Ontario in 1966, temporary foreign workers have been an important complement to local workers on Canada’s farms. Today, agreements bring in workers from Barbados, Trinidad-Tobago, the eastern Caribbean, Jamaica, and Mexico.

Workers are allowed to stay for up to eight months between January 1 and December 15 to help tend plants and harvest produce, labor-intensive jobs locals can’t be found to do.

B.C. growers employed 47 temporary foreign workers from Mexico in the province’s first year as part of the program, but last year the growers requested 3,924 workers. Demand came largely from growers of fruits and nuts, with approximately 1,491 of these workers requested by growers in the Thompson-Okanagan region.

The workers have been a boon for growers like Gutknecht, now 80.

“It was not good, not until we got the Mexicans,” he says.

He typically welcomes them at the end of June to thin the developing crop, and then they spend time picking and packing cherries in Okanagan Centre ­until apples are ready for harvest. The workers typically return to Mexico in October, although last year three went to the Fraser Valley and worked there until ­mid-December.

Without the workers, Gutknecht is blunt about his options.

“I wouldn’t do it anymore,” he says. “We’d either sell the land or take the trees out and do some sort of farming where there isn’t that much labor required.”

Costs add up

But the costs of importing labor add to the expenses of an industry where margins are pinched by rising input costs and a relatively strong Canadian dollar, which has reduced the price of imported fruit versus local produce.

While foreign labor is readily available and more reliable than local workers, it doesn’t come cheap (see “Tallying the costs”).

The costs are a consideration for Germaine and Robert Hogue of Roseridge Orchards in Kelowna, who first participated in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program last year. Roseridge has 15 acres of apple and eight acres of vegetables, and hired two workers from Mexico for six months last year. Germaine Hogue says the arrangement worked well.

“They’re pleasant, they’re polite, they come here to work, they’re serious about what they’re doing,” she said.

But with the minimum wage growers are obliged to pay workers rising to $10.25 an hour this May, the second-highest in the country after Newfoundland (where it’s $10.30 an hour), Hogue can’t dismiss the cost. [A Canadian dollar is worth about the equivalent of a U.S. dollar.]

The minimum hourly wage was $9.50 in 2011, and just $8.60 five years earlier. The increase this year is just 15 cents less than the total increase over the past five years, and amounts to 8 percent overall—the kind of increase growers haven’t seen in their own pay.

Then add in the rising cost of flying in workers, ­housing them, and providing the associated benefits.

“It’s scary,” she said. “It’s going to be at the point where average growers are not going to be able to afford them anymore.”
Providing for guest-workers and being hospitable isn’t the issue, she explained. It’s the economics.

Take accommodations, for example.

Accommodations

Last season, B.C. growers were allowed to charge the seasonal program workers for housing, up to a maximum of $632 for the season, though they can’t deduct more than 10 percent of the gross pay on each check. The average studio apartment in Kelowna, by comparison, rents for $586 a month. What they can charge doesn’t cover the rent, she said. It basically pays for utilities.

Service Canada, the federal government department that oversees the Seasonal Agricultural Workers ­Program, acknowledges there are challenges with the program, but it was unable to provide anyone to interview for this article. Instead, the department’s media ­officers provided a statement focusing on efforts to improve working conditions and wages, two hot topics among advocates of farmworkers’ rights.

Recent steps include, “applying better oversight regarding the genuineness of an offer of employment, granting more authority to the government to review the actions of employers, and, where warranted, denying employers access to temporary foreign workers for a period of two years, along with corresponding corrective action.”

Growers, however, are left to weigh the value they’re getting for the program’s many benefits—an equation that will be more pressing than ever in 2012. With few options left to cut costs or boost revenues, growers have little tolerance for greater costs.

Or, as Hogue remarked, “It gets to the point where, when you have no bottom line to draw from, it makes it very difficult.”