April 28, 2017 7:14 pm
Updated: April 28, 2017 9:12 pm

Exclusive: Nine Okanagan orchardists suspended from hiring Mexican workers due to poor living conditions

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Like most large fruit producers in the south Okanagan and Similkameen Valley, A & M Orchards in Keremeos relies heavily on temporary foreign workers due to a local labour shortage.

Now Global News has learned the Mexican Consulate is refusing to send workers to nine Okanagan farms this season, including A & M, over allegations of poor living conditions.

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“We believe that no human being should be subject to living in a house that is infested with rats, that is covered with mold, that is overcrowded, or they don’t even have a common place to do their laundry,” said Hugo Velazquez with the Mexican Consulate General in Vancouver. “This is just unacceptable for anyone working 10 to 12 hours in the sun or in the rain.”

Raj Vir, the farm’s supervisor, said they were cited for housing violations.

He took Global Okanagan News on a tour of the living quarters; two trailers on the property that house up to 20 workers.

There is a modest kitchen, two bathrooms, a laundry room, small common area and four single beds to a room.

“They did come and tell us they had the problem with the housing.  We could of fixed it but they just came back telling we couldn’t have anyone else come here for a year. So they took us out of the program for one year,” said Vir.

Sandy Diaz, a local advocate for migrant workers, said inspectors on behalf of the Canadian and Mexican governments showed up unannounced last harvest season.

“Never before has there been inspections like this,” she said. “The farmers didn’t have time to kind of just fix things quickly and that was the reality of the workers. They are here from six to eight months. Sometimes its deplorable, some of the conditions.”

The ban is a blow to the BC Fruit Growers Association.

233 farms in the Okanagan rely on 2,085 fruit pickers from Mexico who come to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

“It shows the level of oversight of the program that problems are caught and if there are issues that they are dealt with,” said association general manager Glen Lucas.

Lucas said there is strict oversight as employers must submit an independent housing inspection report every season for which they are applying.

The Integrity Branch of Service Canada also conducts random audits of employers with the aim of inspecting 25% of all employers using temporary foreign workers.

“If it is random and you have a one in four chance, you would not risk that,” said Lucas.

Employment and Social Development Canada cannot comment on specific cases but said it is improving Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program through increased inspections.

“The cornerstone of the compliance regime of the TFW Program is employer inspections, which serve to protect TFWs from abuse and exploitation, and to protect the integrity of the Canadian labour market by encouraging employers to comply with Program conditions,” said spokeswoman Julia Sullivan.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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