While the United States struggles to accommodate the tide of migrants seeking opportunities and a better life north of the border, some migrants are seeking opportunities even further north.
Upwards of 1,400 workers could travel to British Columbia, Canada, from Mexico this year to work in the province’s orchards, berry fields, and greenhouses under the federally sponsored Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. When the program started in British Columbia in 2004, just 47 workers participated.
Developed in 1966 to bring Caribbean workers to Ontario, the program employed over 18,000 foreign workers last year. Of these, almost two-thirds—11,720—came from Mexico.
Migrants are increasingly needed in Canada, where Glen Lucas of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association said it’s increasingly difficult to entice an urban population to harvest fruit. While hundreds of students from Quebec are willing to travel across the country each summer to harvest cherries, by the time apples are ready for picking workers are hard to find.
Typically, the Okanagan Valley requires about 3,300 seasonal workers to harvest and sort cherries each summer, and to pick apples. Workers who sort cherries are paid at least Can.$9 an hour (Can.$1 more than minimum wage), Lucas said, while most growers are paying apple harvesters Can.$17 to $21 a bin (or about Can.$10 an hour). A Canadian dollar is equivalent to about U.S.$0.90.
But orchard work is physically demanding, and as other sectors of the B.C. economy have taken off, pickers have gone for the better-paying jobs available.
“Five years ago, we had an adequate number of workers here, and just in the last five years, we started getting shortages,” Lucas said. “Quebec workers are our first choice, but when you’re short, you need the security of being able to harvest your crop.”
Mexicans are filling the gap.
In 2005, 36 migrants worked at three orchards in the Okanagan. Lucas believes that number could triple, perhaps rising even as high as 200 as new growers sign on with the B.C. program.
That’s despite the fact the program comes at a premium to growers, who incur higher labor costs than if they were employing domestic help.
For example, students from Quebec each summer can make do with a tent for accommodation, but farms that hire migrants are obliged to provide housing that meets government standards and meal facilities, as well as transportation to and from job sites.
While employers can charge some of the added costs to the worker, accommodation and other employer-supplied benefits can add upwards of Can.$3 to the base wage of Can.$8.60 an hour.
Still, Osoyoos cherry grower Ranbir Kambo, a director of the B.C. program, believes the cost is worthwhile. The pay attracts workers willing and able to do the work, yet is more affordable than trying to match wages of between Can.$9.50 and $18 an hour that vineyards are offering.
The program isn’t without problems, but Kambo said these are being addressed. For example, last year a grower in Oliver refused to pay return airfare for his workers; he isn’t participating this year. In the Lower Mainland, a grower providing inadequate housing prompted the adoption of guidelines for housing as well as inspections.
But workers’ advocates such as Adriana Paz of the B.C. chapter of Justicia for Migrant Workers, said guest-worker status puts workers at an ongoing disadvantage.
“[Growers] require migrant labor because they face trouble trying to find a local population,” she said. “[But] if you are bringing workers who are going to help you raise your level of productivity, it’s not free. The other side of the coin is you also have to take care of them as human beings.”
Lucas acknowledges this but notes that Canada’s guest-worker program is an attractive alternative to crossing illegally into the United States.
“The worker knows that if he comes up and works on a temporary visa, he gets to go home and see his family,” Lucas said. If all goes well, the worker is then able to return to Canada the following season.
Since the program also specifies agricultural employment, Lucas said there’s little fear in Canada that guest workers will move from harvesting into other forms of work, as often happens in the United States.
“It’s a critical difference,” he said.