Global News has learned more fruit producers in the Okanagan Valley will be suspended or expelled at the end of this month from a federal program that allows access to migrant workers.
The Consulate General of Mexico in Vancouver says B.C. fruit producers, including some growers in the Okanagan, will be suspended or expelled from the Mexican seasonal agricultural worker program.
Dionisio Pérez Jácome, the Mexican ambassador to Canada, acknowledged the federal program is important for Mexico but said it has a mandate to protect its workers from alleged housing violations.
Fruit growers are required to provide subsidized housing to labourers who come to Canada under the program, but enforcement of housing standards has long been an issue.
The Okanagan fruit industry relies heavily on migrant labourers due to an acute labour shortage.
More than 200 farms in the Okanagan employ 2,500 seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico every year.
“We just don’t have the local workers showing up on the orchards to pick the fruit anymore,” said Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association.
In 2016, the Mexican Consulate expelled two fruit producers and suspended nine Okanagan farms from the program for the 2017 fruit growing season due to allegations of poor living conditions.
One of those farms was A & M Orchards in Keremeos.
“They just came back telling you can’t have anyone else come here for a year, so they took us out of the program for one year,” said farm supervisor Raj Vir at the time.
Lucas said changes are being implemented to ramp up inspections and improve housing standards.
He said the industry is looking at Atco trailers used in Alberta work camps that have been decommissioned and could be repurposed for farm workers.
Lucas said access to migrant workers is vital to the success of the fruit industry.
“We are very anxious that we have access to that labour and it’s essential to our industry, and we will perform on maintaining standards and improving the housing.”
He said the further action taken by the Mexican Consulate shows the process is working to hold employers to account.
“The good news is the program is rectifying that. It’s taking action. There is a process and I think the other thing is its continuous improvement, we’re always doing better, the standards are always increasing and yes we’re pushing our performance higher in the housing area.”
Lucas said much of his time is spent on labour issues.
“If we look back five years I would say the labour file was taking less than 10 per cent of my time, and now it’s more than a third, it’s probably approaching half of my time, so we’re definitely focusing on it.”
Jácome said kicking fruit growers out of the program is a last resort and he wants all levels of government and industry to work together to improve living conditions for migrant workers.
“Our aim is not to sanction farms but to prevent that from happening. No one wins from sanctioning.”
Service Canada, a federal institution that is part of Employment and Social Development Canada, said in a statement that it is conducting a study to develop a national standard for employer-provided housing by next spring.
WATCH: Nine Okanagan orchardists suspended from hiring Mexican workers due to poor living conditions