Concerns over treatment of foreign workers

Concerns over treatment of foreign workers


Dan Walton
Oliver Chronicle

An Okanagan orchardist was caught breaking the rules of hiring foreigners.

R Bagha Orchards in Vernon was fined $1,000 because “The employer did not give the inspector the documents they asked for,” according to the federal government’s list of employers found to be non-compliant with the program.

The Vernon orchard was given a $1,000 penalty and is still allowed to use the program. It was one of 29 employers across Canada that have been busted so far in 2019.

Many orchardists rely on the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program to find employees who are willing to do physically demanding work during the summer months for the least amount of money legally possible.

“Physically demanding work for $12.65 per hour,” reads a typical farm job posting. “Fast-paced environment. Must be able to work under pressure, meet tight deadlines, handle repetitive tasks and heavy loads.”

It is difficult to attract Canadians to these positions, but through the TFW program, employers have easy access to impoverished citizens from developing countries who are willing to fill the vacancies.

Although the TFWs are subject to the same labour standards and even higher living conditions than Canadians, many are in a weak position to defend their rights. Some are desperate enough to hold a job where they are abused. Others don’t have strong English skills and are unable to articulate their complaints. And TFWs who are applying for permanent residency would jeopardize their chances of success by blowing the whistle on their employer.

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A local farm worker, who the Chronicle has agreed not to name, says the rules of the program are not being followed here in the South Okanagan. He says Jamaican TFWs are paying significant medical costs in order to be eligible to work in Canada, and they count on six to 12 months of employment just to recoup those costs. But a local orchardist who didn’t like his foreign workers sent them home after just two months, so those people would have returned to Jamaica with very little gains after months of hard labour in the South Okanagan.

Since the federal Liberals took power in 2015, there are more inspections and the program has become stronger, according to Véronique Simard, press secretary for Employment Minister Patricia Hajdu.

But the local farm worker who’s criticizing the program says many employers lie to pass those inspections, and although the government has an anonymous tip line in place (1-866-602-9448), many workers are too fearful or incapable of sounding the alarm.

Nevertheless, the Liberal Party has faith in the system. Simard said, “Our government stands with all workers in Canada. We take our responsibility to protect temporary foreign workers very seriously. They are entitled to the same rights and protections as every Canadian. To ensure these protections, we’ve increased the number of on-site inspections of employers that use the program and we’ve partnered with community organizations devoted to protecting vulnerable workers, to ensure they are informed of their rights and protections when they arrive in Canada. We will continue working to ensure that this program works for employees, employers and the Canadian economy.”

The Oliver Chronicle is inviting anyone involved with local agriculture to reach out if they’re aware of abuses going on through the TFW program. Privacy can be assured.