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Shortage of Mexican workers leads to request for Okanagan residents to work on farms

Okanagan workers encouraged to seek employment on farms this year as the industry braces for foreign labour shortage
Every year, about 7,500 Mexican nationals come to B.C. to work on farms, half of them in the Okanagan. But this year, there are serious concerns about a shortage of foreign labourers.

Every year, approximately 7,500 Mexican nationals trek north to B.C. to work on farms, half of them in the Okanagan.

But this year, there are serious concerns about a shortage of foreign labourers

“I’d say we have a very high level of concern that we will be short of workers this year,” said Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association (BCFGA).

READ MORE: Coronavirus: B.C. says it will oversee quarantine of temporary foreign workers

The dire situation has the BCFGA appealing to local residents to help compensate the labour shortage.

“We are encouraging people, local people, to work on farms this year ,” Lucas told Global News, “for local workers to look into it and help us harvest this year.”

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While it’s not known at this point how significant the shortage will be, Lucas said any shortage will have a direct impact on this year’s harvest.

“It’s almost a one-to-one relationship with the workers picking and being able to get the harvest to market. And if we’re 50 per cent short on workers, we would only harvest 50 per cent of the crop.”

Clarity needed on status of workers coming from Mexico
Clarity needed on status of workers coming from Mexico

The anticipated shortage of Mexican workers in Canada stems from Mexico’s recent announcement that it is taking a pause on sending its citizens to work on Canadian farms.

The decision comes after the deaths of two Mexican workers from COVID-19 this year at two separate Ontario farms.

“There’s a pause on any Mexican workers going to a farm that is not in compliance with the COVID-19 protocols.” Lucas said.

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While the “pause” will impact the farm industry in other provinces, in B.C., it’s a different story.

British Columbia has extremely rigorous pandemic protocols in place, ones that were implemented after 23 West Kelowna nursery workers tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this spring.

READ MORE: COVID-19 outbreak investigated at West Kelowna plant nursery

One of those strict protocols include not allowing individual farm operators to enforce the two-week quarantine requirement once the Mexican workers arrive on Canadian soil.

Unlike other provinces, B.C.’s government is the body that enforces the two-week isolation period.

“All those workers are in a central facility and the province is managing that and ensuring that compliance is maintained,” Lucas said.

According to Lucas, Mexico’s consulate in Vancouver has assured B.C. that due to the strict protocols, Mexican workers will be allowed to travel and work in B.C.

Migrant workers allege mistreatment, appalling conditions amid pandemic
Migrant workers allege mistreatment, appalling conditions amid pandemic

So why the anticipated shortage in British Columbia?

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“The impact is actually not here, but more in Mexico,” Lucas said.

Mexico has been hard hit by the pandemic and getting workers organized to work in B.C. is proving challenging.

“Workers are just having troubles getting to the airport, buses are cancelled,” he said. “There’s difficulty travelling from one state to another. Offices are closed, so they can’t get their documentation, their work permits.”

Migrant workers denied entry to Canada during pandemic
Migrant workers denied entry to Canada during pandemic

Those challenges forced the cancellation of two charter flights bound for Vancouver last week — 300 workers that were supposed to fly to B.C., half of them destined for the Okanagan, never made it.

“We couldn’t get the workers organized in Mexico to get on the airplanes,” Lucas said. “So the impact is not what’s happening here in B.C.

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“The impact is more on the supply side in Mexico, so that’s where we’re seeing real problems emerge and the shortage of workers this year.”

Lucas said he hopes Okanagan residents come forward to help diminish the labour shortage.

“We are encouraging people, local people to work on farms this year, Lucas said. “If people are unemployed or on the CERB benefit, they can have a certain amount of earnings on CERB before it starts to get clawed back, so we are really encouraging people to help out on farms and check out those job boards that are out there.”

Click here for job postings.