British Columbia strapped for labor

Canada: Seasonal foreign workers needed to save fruit crops

As much of British Columbia grapples with working from home during the pandemic, the province’s farming industry is facing the monumental task of bringing in around 10,000 seasonal workers from overseas. Negotiating isolation protocols with the government, making sure workers have visas and scrambling to find rare flights to even get them here are just some of the hurdles facing the industry right now.

The federal government has made an exemption for temporary foreign workers – and those within the farming industry’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) – to be allowed into Canada during the COVID-19 crisis. But with the pandemic closing visa offices in Mexico – where the vast majority of the seasonal workforce comes from – there are doubts whether the B.C. farming sector will get enough labour in time to harvest its usual bountiful crop come the summer.

Rhonda Driediger, vice-president of the BC Agriculture Council (BCAC), said the colder than usual spring is throwing the industry a lifeline at the moment, potentially delaying the ripening of the crop. However, Driediger said a lot will depend how soon the visa offices open in Mexico and how long the travel restrictions will last internally in Canada.

And she envisages the brunt of impact being felt in the Okanagan, where they rely on hand-harvesting of their prize cherry and apple crops. “We will get a workforce, we just don’t know how many at the moment,” said Driediger who, as well as heading up the council’s labour committee, runs her own 160-acre berry farm in Langley.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of workers coming later than usual. If no commercial flights are available, we may have to consider organizing charter flights for the workers. We have to. We have to get them here. Most of the blueberry and raspberries are machine-harvested. The hand-harvesting of fresh berries in the (Fraser) Valley is done by a domestic workforce. Most of the temporary workforce (from overseas) is for mechanical harvesting. I see the biggest problem being in the Okanagan, where there is a lot more hand-harvesting for the likes of cherries and apples.”


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