A young farmer in Oliver says there is a lot more oversight on foreign worker programs than meets the eye.
Apple grower David Machial said a recent article in the Oliver Chronicle (Feb. 14) suggested that foreign workers are exploited and don’t have any rights.
Machial talked about his own experience with the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), which he must utilize to harvest his crops every year.
He has been bringing in two workers from Mexico for the past 11 years.
“It’s been a great experience. A huge upside to the program is you can bring back the same workers year after year. And they know your farm.”
Machial said these programs are very important to farmers because finding local help is really difficult.
He noted that a lot of locals worked on farms in the 1980s and 1990s, but that all changed. As farm hands started to retire, there was no one moving up the ladder, he said.
“Let’s be honest, guys like you and me, when we were in school, didn’t want to work on a farm. Kids go off to university and try to move up the labour ladder.”
But Machial broke that tradition himself by staying home and making a career out of farming.
He said SAWP, which begin about 15 years ago, definitely fills the labour void.
“Without it, I don’t think I would farm.”
Machial recalled one year when he had to hire some locals for extra help with the harvest. But they didn’t show up and he lost part of his crop.
“I couldn’t handle it anymore, it was too stressful. I was picking until dark, so we got out of it.”
Without the SAWP, a lot of farmers wouldn’t bother growing fruit, or they would certainly struggle a lot more than they are.
Machial said one of his workers grows corn on his own farm in Mexico. So the money he made in Oliver went towards buying his own tractor. That sure beat the horse and plough.
His other worker sends money back to his wife who buys supplies for making hammocks they sell at market.
“His goal is to eventually save enough money working for me to buy his own farm,” Machial said.
The fact is the rights of these foreign workers are protected, he pointed out.
Machial said their wage is $13.84 per hour, plus holiday pay. They can also collect maternity benefits and claim dependents, he added. They even receive GST rebates.
“They actually don’t pay any taxes here, which is amazing.”
Machial said their contract lays out all of their right. For example, farmers have to provide their workers with housing, and the house must be inspected before they arrive.
“If you don’t pass inspection you can’t bring in any workers.”
Farmers can charge rent ($5.36 a working day) and it caps out at $825.
“As far as rent goes, if you’re here for six months or eight months, $825 for eight months, that’s pretty good. I think we’d all be happy if we could get rent like that,” Machial said.
Medical insurance for Mexicans is 94 cents a day, he stated. “They have better coverage than we do.”
Machial also noted that farmers have to pay for their workers’ air fair (both ways) for a total of approximately $1,200 per worker.
Their contract also gives workers the right to leave the farm and go home for any reason, Machial said.
“Any employer who’s smart should realize that because you want to treat your employees well. The last thing you want to do is spend $700 to fly them here, and after three weeks they’re not happy, now you have to pay $400 to send them home. Congratulations, you just spent $1,200 and you really got nothing for it.”
Machial said his workers fill out a performance evaluation on him, and if they don’t like working on his farm, they can go elsewhere.
“My workers keep returning because there is a good relationship; I’ve got a reliable source of labour.”
Machial is quick to acknowledge there are farmers out there who don’t treat their employees very well.
“Unfortunately there’s going to be bad employers out there. I mean, I won’t deny that. Chances are we’ve all had the odd employer that we haven’t been happy with.”
On the flipside, there are employees who aren’t very good either, he pointed out.
Machial said the Mexican consulate in Vancouver ensures (via inspections and interviews) that farmers treat their workers well.
Last year, there three Mexican consulate representatives came to Machial’s farm to talk to his workers and inspect their house.
Everything was fine.
“They suggested buying more drawers so workers could have more storage space, which I did.”
They followed up on him to ensure the issues were addressed.
Machial said farmers are also subjected to integrity audits.
“You can’t lie during an integrity audit. It’s a full-blown payroll audit . . . if you’re going to lie you are essentially someone who’s committing tax fraud.”
Machial said farmers cannot hire any workers until the audit is complete, which could take four months.
As far as worker accommodations go, farmers are required to provide washrooms, washer and dryer, real beds, box springs, frame and mattress.
“You can’t just throw a mattress on the floor.”
Workers must also be provided with ovens (no hot plates are allowed). Fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and proper signage are also required.
Machial said any worker who is unhappy with their situation should contact their liaison.
There is no overtime pay on farms, but employees can’t work more than 12 hours at a time, Machial said.
He recalled one cherry season when his workers were given a five-day break. After the third day they were upset with him because they wanted to get back to work.
Machial’s response: “Guys, are you kidding? Come one, let’s go to the beach or something. I appreciate the enthusiasm but save your strength, there will be more work, I promise.”