Residents turn farm labour discord into action

Residents turn farm labour discord into action

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(This is part one of a two-part series on seasonal farm labour discord addressed at a recent forum in Oliver.)
Breaking down the stereotypes and providing seasonal farm workers with the basics is the first step in resolving many problems in Oliver and Osoyoos, according to farm labour advocates.
This was the message at last week’s “From Discord to Action” forum held at the Elks hall.
Growers, regional politicians and farm workers gathered to discuss labour concerns and suggested solutions. At the end, a steering committee was struck to bring about the desired changes. It was noted that provincial politicians and the BC Fruits Growers’ Association were “conspicuously absent” from the forum.
The meeting began with attendees listing various concerns.
Oliver Mayor Ron Hovanes said the Town has been proactive by establishing its own pickers’ camp (Loose Bay). But he noted it has taken on a different, rougher lifestyle that is causing a concern.
Hovanes expressed another concern about there being no spot checks or monitoring to ensure that farmers are living up to their obligations and being held accountable for their workers’ needs.
Osoyoos Mayor Stu Wells agreed that the information he has received about what goes on at Loose Bay is “unsettling.”
Wells raised a concern about the “different set of rules” between organized immigrant workers and domestic workers.
Area C director Allan Patton raised the issue of illegal dumping and illegal camping by seasonal farm workers. He also noted there have been some accusations of sexual harassment against farmers.
Patton said the fact that migrant workers need rides to various worksites is another reason to have public transit in the area.
One advocate for Mexican workers questioned their treatment by some Oliver farmers. “They don’t respect them . . . they push them a lot.”
The advocate said some farmers expect their Mexican workers to put in 15-18 hours a day without extra remuneration.
Mara Marquez from Kiwo Solutions (consultant for Mexicans) said the human rights needs of Mexicans are often overlooked. For example, some are fired if they complain about being ill, so they end up working when they’re sick.
Another forum participant said people will start seeing more farmers going bankrupt because of competition from cheap foreign imports.
One farm worker who resides at Loose Bay said there are no amenities for workers, noting only two toilets exists for 200 people, and there is no laundromat.
She said if an employer doesn’t respect his or her workers, there is no place to go for help.
Another worker said Oliver needs an interpretive centre for French Canadians.
Vineyard worker Jennifer Hicks said a lot of field workers are treated like a number. She claimed they have to work five hours before getting a break, and those who complain about anything are fired.
Hicks said she started a petition to change the laws for the betterment of workers, but ran into opposition.
A vineyard foreman at Tinhorn Creek winery said one problem they have is a lack of respect from workers, some of whom abuse the winery’s facilities.
Local resident Brita Park said the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program is flawed, noting there are different rules for different people. She noted there is a real disparity in worker remuneration because of these different rules.
Park also stated that workers are “blacklisted” and not hired again if they happen to complain about something.
“For the sake of their families and security, they are very vulnerable.”
Village of Keremeos Councillor Arlene Arlow said what is really needed is an advocacy or ombudsman office for foreign and domestic farm workers.
But Arlow said dreadlocks and tourism don’t mix well. She cited one incident where a man and his wife were walking past the K Café in Keremeos and a group of seasonal workers refused to move. They scorned and laughed at the couple, Arlow said.
Osoyoos Town Councillor Michael Ryan said there is a lack of enforcement of working conditions, adding the government is content with farms monitoring themselves.
“We lack the basic facilities for people who can’t afford a hotel.”
Ryan said the resort community is very offended by transients, and the tourism sector expects the Town to stop the problems.
“When people pay $100 a night they don’t want to see people on the beach smoking pot.”
An outreach worker for Spanish-speaking itinerants said she has attended the hospital with sick workers because their employers don’t have time to take them.
Jany Lopez from Tienda Mexican said workers have to contend with no toilets, no showers, blacklisting, bribes and corruption at the consulate.
Oliver businessman Alberto Veintimilla recalled the time when farmers provided adequate accommodation, but that obligation seems to have disappeared.
“We want to make people welcome, but there is no place to make them welcome.”
Veintimilla said he has been trying to purchase land in order to establish an international hostel. The other option is transforming his property into a campground for seasonal workers, but he acknowledged the outrage that would cause.
Regional director George Bush said the problem comes down to attitude. “A lot of it is just plain ignorance.”

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