Business is sweet for fruit producers in B.C.
Family-owned tree fruit farms generate $776 million of economic activity annually, according to the BC Fruit Growers’ Association.
Foreign workers have become a key driver behind the industry’s success.
Due to an acute labour shortage, employers rely heavily on the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP).
“Demand for labour is a huge concern and a huge issue, so yeah, we’re seeing continuous growth, probably 10 per cent per year,” said Reg Ens, Executive Director of the BC Agriculture Council (BCAC).
The program allows Canadian agricultural employers to hire seasonal workers from Mexico and some Caribbean countries, including Jamaica.
But there are allegations of housing violations and poor living conditions on the farms.
WATCH BELOW: Exclusive: Nine Okanagan orchardists suspended from hiring Mexican workers due to poor living conditions
Information meetings among government, foreign consulates, industry representatives and growers have been held in Delta, Abbotsford, Kelowna and Osoyoos over the past two months.
“It is to help growers understand the changes that are being made to the contract and the agreements, and to provide education on different parts of worker health, worker safety, legal contracts,” Ens said in Osoyoos on Thursday.
Mexican officials have sanctioned 19 growers across B.C. ahead of this year’s growing season, and eight of the employers are in the Okanagan.
Some have been kicked out of the program entirely for violations, meaning they can’t hire Mexican foreign workers.
Mexican consular officer Hugo Velazquez, in charge of overseeing the SAWP program in B.C., said there’s been bullying issues.
“Constant berating or mistreatment, calling them names, what is usually considered bullying and harassment,” he said.
The Mexican consulate also alleges sub-standard housing is provided to employees on some farms.
“Housing violations are usually overcrowding, sometimes they’re given foams instead of mattresses, we’ve seen 14 people share a toilet,” he said.
“They have all of the same rights that a Canadian or domestic worker would have, so every rule that applies to you and I as Canadian citizens applies to our foreign nationals,” Ens added.
Regulators are ramping up inspections and cracking down on non-compliance, but they say education is the key to success.
More than 200 farms in the Okanagan employ 2,500 seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico every year.
WATCH BELOW: More Okanagan fruit growers to be blocked from hiring Mexican workers