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A Case of Bad Apples, or a Rotten Orchard?

BC’s farms rely on migrant labour. But workers and advocates say their working conditions are often unsafe, even abusive.

Zak Vescera 31 Aug 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

For more than three years, Jeffry Hernández supported his family in Guatemala by packing cucumbers at an Abbotsford farm. 

His days started early and ended late. Often, Hernández said it was normal to work 11 hours a day, sometimes spending hours lifting and picking produce in a sweltering greenhouse. Hernández sent every penny he made home to his mother, his sister, his partner and eventually their newborn daughter.

But all the while, Hernández said he was constantly abused by his bosses. He said he was pelted with produce and boxes when he didn’t work fast enough. He said he and fellow foreign workers were sometimes paid under the table at a rate below minimum wage and were housed in squalid, cramped quarters. When he complained, he said, his bosses threatened him with deportation. 

Hernández outlined those allegations in an interview and in extensive documentation he filed to the federal and provincial governments, which he shared with The Tyee in its entirety. They include a decision from a provincial agency that determined Hernández had been underpaid for years, awarding him thousands of dollars in compensation.

The Tyee contacted Hernández’s employer, who confirmed he had worked at that farm but denied Hernández’s allegations of abuse, which have not been tested in a court of law.

Hernández is not alone. Each year, thousands of migrant farmworkers travel to British Columbia to harvest the province’s offerings: cherries, corn, cucumbers, plums, peaches, grapes for wine. Farming makes up one per cent of B.C.’s GDP; fruit sales alone are worth about $460 million a year.

Two decades ago, there were no temporary foreign workers like him on B.C. farms. Last year, there were roughly 14,000. They now make up a majority of the workforce on the province’s fruit farms, who say their entire business model would collapse without their labour. 

Despite farmers’ reliance on temporary foreign workers, consular officials, advocates and workers themselves say they are too often mistreated by their bosses. 

The Tyee spoke to more than a dozen farm labourers for this story, as well as nine outreach workers who routinely visit these farms, where employers almost always double as landlords. Many described cases of employers physically or verbally abusing their employees, and they also described abhorrent housing conditions well below the standard set by senior governments, a subject The Tyee will explore in detail in the next instalment in this series. 

“The majority of migrant workers who approach our organization are trying to escape situations of financial abuse, bullying and harassment, unsafe working conditions, poor living conditions, sexual abuse or harassment and financial precariousness,” said Juan Trevino, a settlement worker with the non-profit organization MOSAIC. MOSAIC supports hundreds of workers annually, Trevino said, many of whom say they have been abused by their employers for years.

Representatives of the farming industry say that characterization of the program is unfair. Glen Lucas, the manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, says problems on these farms are a case of isolated and unfortunate incidents: bad apples, not a rotten orchard. “There’s this idea that we’re painted with one colour. But it’s a complicated picture,” Lucas said. 

But even employers agree governments are not doing enough to catch and punish employers who break the rules. Outreach workers say when federal agents do visit farms, their visits are often perfunctory, and that they sometimes do not even speak to workers. 

Hernández is one of few temporary foreign workers who succeeded in applying for the open work permit the federal government offers to workers who have been abused. It was a final, desperate strategy, he said, one he would not have taken if there was any other option. 

“Everyone including myself, we don’t know that we have rights here in Canada,” Hernández said in an interview conducted in Spanish. “Even I, a few months ago, was not aware that I had any rights here. Me and all the people there — we didn’t know.”

A fruitful opportunity

It’s a chilly day in the middle of June, and Juan Dircao is carefully plucking pears near the side of the road in Summerland, B.C. He’s thinning the green fruit so that the weight of the pears doesn’t drag the tree’s branches to the ground before they are ready for picking. He and five other workers stand atop steel ladders. The artist Bad Bunny, a Puerto Rican rapper, drifts out of a portable speaker, punctuated by the gentle thump of hard fruit hitting damp earth.  

It is Dircao’s 15th year working in British Columbia. He comes here for eight months out of the year, sending the money he makes back to his wife and two children in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Dircao likes the work. It pays between double and triple what he could make back home, and it’s steadier. 

A man in a red ballcap and blue T-shirt thins pears in an orchard.
Juan Dircao has worked in BC for the last 15 years. He earns between double and triple what he could in Mexico, and sends his earnings back home to support his family. Photo by Zak Vescera.

“You have a job everyday here. In Mexico, sometimes you only have a job for one week or one month,” Dircao said. 

Last year B.C. farmers got permission to hire more than 14,000 temporary foreign workers. By most accounts, the agricultural industry would not survive without them.

Lucas estimates temporary foreign workers now make up between 50 and 66 per cent of his members’ workforce. In fewer than 20 years, workers from Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica have become the backbone of the province’s entire agriculture industry, in particular for fruit farms.

“Without them, no one in the valley is farming. No one in B.C.,” said Sukhdeep Brar, the vice-president of the BC Fruit Growers’ Association and Dircao’s employer.

It wasn’t always like this. British Columbia was the last province to join the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, or SAWP, a federal program that allows Canadian farmers to hire workers from partner countries like Jamaica or Mexico for up to eight months a year.

B.C. joined that program in 2004 after concerted lobbying from fruit farmers, who warned the province’s crops might rot in the fields because they couldn’t hire enough workers for the harvest.

In that first year, only four temporary foreign farmworkers like Dircao came to the Okanagan Valley, staying together in a single log cabin. There were fewer than 70 across British Columbia.

Most migrant labourers working in the province now are still from the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which is managed with partner countries. But farmers can now also hire workers without the direct involvement of a foreign government through the agriculture stream of the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker program, which lets employers hire workers for as much as two years at a time. Some farms hire hundreds of workers each year. Jealous Fruits, a Kelowna-area fruit packer, got permission to hire nearly 1,000 workers last year alone.

The premise of the program is an economic win-win. Thousands of families like Dircao’s across Latin America and the Caribbean have benefitted from the wages they can earn in B.C. — Lucas calls it “the best foreign aid program, ever.” It has also dramatically changed the fruit industry’s prospects. Before 2004, Lucas said, his members were talking about downsizing or selling their farms; now, they’re talking about growing.

But the program’s explosive growth has underscored its problems. In 2019, a blueberry farm owned by Vancouver’s Aquilini family was ordered to pay more than $130,000 in unpaid wages and vacation pay to more than 170 migrant staff. Guatemalan workers at that farm later told the press their managers had refused to give them water until they picked enough fruit on some days.

In 2020, the Krazy Cherry Fruit Co. landed in the news after workers sent the CBC footage of the cramped conditions they were living in during an active COVID-19 outbreak. 

Lucas said such cases are not the norm. The Tyee met farmworkers, for example, who said they have long-standing and friendly relationships with their employers.

But Perla Villegas says cases of abuse are also not isolated outliers. Villegas, a lawyer by training, has visited hundreds of farms since 2019, when she first became involved with Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture, an activist group in the Okanagan. Villegas said she routinely visits farms with overcrowded, unsanitary housing conditions. She has interviewed many workers who report being paid under the table in cash, she said, and others who have faced both physical and financial abuse from their employers. Female farmworkers, who are a minority of the workforce, are also vulnerable to sexual abuse, Villegas said.

“They don’t want to talk about the situations happening in the farm. They are scared. they don’t want to make their supervisors know or aware that they are talking with someone,” she said. 

The Tyee interviewed eight other outreach workers from five different organizations, as well as an official from the Mexican consulate in Vancouver, all of whom reported similar problems. A 2020 survey of 143 migrant farmworkers in the Okanagan found more than 97 per cent felt they did not have the same rights as Canadians while working in the country. More than one in four reported being threatened or intimidated by an employer, and more than 14 per cent said their employer had assaulted them.

Advocates said workers are almost never willing to speak about it for fear they will lose their job. Temporary foreign workers in Canada can only work for a single, designated employer at a single worksite. That means employees cannot simply move to a new employer.

Employers, on the other hand, can send an employee home or refuse to call them back for the next season. Javier Robles, an outreach worker with Kelowna Community Resources who visits these farms, says that means workers are afraid to raise complaints or contact officials.

“Fifty per cent keep quiet,” Robles said. “When you tell them the truth about what can happen, they think about it again.”

In theory, there is no shortage of government oversight. At least six federal and provincial government ministries or agencies play a role in administering or monitoring some part of the program. The bulk of inspections are supposed to be done by Service Canada, a program operated by the federal Employment and Social Development agency. In theory, that agency can punish farms that break rules through monetary fines, or even temporarily ban them from hiring workers under the program. But Robles said he has rarely encountered inspectors. When he does, he said, they usually don’t speak Spanish, the language the vast majority of migrant farmworkers communicate in. 

“They go straight to talk to the employers. They don’t talk to the workers,” Robles said. “You can’t pretend that using Google Translate is enough to speak with a worker. It’s disrespectful. Workers get scared. They have to trust in you.” 

Neither the provincial nor federal government made anyone available to answer The Tyee’s questions for this series. The Tyee sent Employment and Social Development Canada a list of 22 questions, including a request for data on how many inspections they conduct on farms, how many violations they found and whether they have any inspection staff who speak Spanish. The ministry responded with a five-paragraph email that answered almost none of The Tyee’s queries. 

Mitch Ward, an outreach worker with Kamloops Immigrant Services, says staff often seem ill-prepared to investigate serious allegations. Ward said he has been a part of investigations where staff insisted on interviewing workers while their employer was in the room. Other complaints go unanswered, Ward said. The result is that workers making complaints take a big risk with little chance of a payoff. “It creates huge disincentive to speak out. Depending on the stream they’re in in the temporary foreign worker program, it could affect their ability to get permanent residency or their ability to ever come back,” Ward said. 

Lucas argues many of the complaints submitted by workers are often about other workers, or are otherwise issues that don’t require government to be involved. He says the farming industry doesn’t have any more problems than other industries that hire temporary foreign workers.

But he does agree that Service Canada’s agents seem unprepared. He says his members report high turnover among inspectors, and many who seem unfamiliar with the rules. Lucas said that if an employer does break the rules, he is in favour of tough punishment for them. 

“The thing that will improve compliance most is dealing with issues, and following through,” Lucas said. “All of a sudden all the other people on that tail of the bell curve will wake up.” 

Lucas did point out that workers can request to be transferred to another farm through their respective consulates. Berenice Díaz Ceballos, Mexico’s consul general in Vancouver, told The Tyee she has arranged this hundreds of times for workers in the past. Her consulate has also blacklisted farms that have been found to be repeatedly breaking the rules. But Ceballos said there is nothing precluding those farms from hiring workers from a different country the following year. 

“We need to solve the problems from the bottom because if not, they only change nationalities, but they are not addressing the real issues of the problem,” Ceballos said. Since 2017, she said, her staff have visited hundreds of farms across B.C. and made numerous reports about rule violations to officials in the provincial and federal governments. Ceballos said she has felt compelled to do this because those governments aren’t pulling their weight. But she says her staff cannot do it alone. 

“I don’t have the people nor the resources, and it’s not up to the government of Mexico to oversee a Canadian program,” Ceballos said. 

“Our workers are here legally. They are working for Canada, contributing to Canada and paying their taxes here in Canada.” 

When The Tyee began working on this story last year, we reached out to provincial Agriculture Minister Lana Popham for an interview, but was told she was not available. Instead, the provincial government replied with an unattributed statement, saying they were in regular communication with the Mexican government but offering no details about how they responded to their complaints.

Despite her misgivings, Ceballos thinks the program is a good thing. The Mexican government specifically nominates workers from poor, rural parts of the country. And there’s interest in growing: Ceballos said the provincial government has approached her about doubling the roughly 6,500 Mexican workers they send to work on B.C. farms each year, something the B.C. government would not confirm. 

Lucas also thinks the program will continue to grow. When B.C. joined the program in 2004, farmers thought temporary foreign workers would supplement a shrinking Canadian workforce. Instead, they effectively replaced them. One of the requirements of the Temporary Foreign Worker program is that employers have to demonstrate they tried and failed to hire a Canadian at the same price. This year, that requirement was waived. Most farmers say it is a formality, anyway, because almost none of them can find domestic staff.

A man with a beard, wearing a grey T-shirt, stands in a field of pear trees.
Sukhdeep Brar is the vice-president of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association. He owns a farm near Summerland, BC. Photo by Zak Vescera.

“Even if we were to give house and board to a domestic worker I still don’t think we could find anyone who could do it,” Brar said. Now, more than ever, farms aren’t hiring Canadians.

Some of the reasons why are obvious. Many farm jobs offer minimum wage, or a salary determined by how much fruit a worker can pick. During harvest, workers often need to work long, hard hours in the hot sun, including on weekends and holidays. And unlike almost every other industry in B.C., farmers are not required to pay overtime. For decades, B.C. farms have relied in part on transient workers from Quebec who come to harvest fruit in the summertime. Anecdotally, fewer of those workers appear to be coming. Brar said he is sometimes confronted by locals in the Okanagan frustrated he is giving jobs to migrant workers. “I’ll tell that person walking down the street, come work for me then,” Brar said. They never do. Automation isn’t an option: the fruit Brar grows is too tender to be harvested by machines. That means temporary foreign workers have become the lynchpin of the entire industry. “To us, they are our livelihood as well. Because without them, we’re not farming. Without them, we have nothing,” Brar said.

Normally, businesses that can’t hire workers respond by raising salaries and improving working conditions to make the jobs more attractive.

But Lucas says his members can’t raise their salaries, because they’re competing with fruit growers in the United States and other regions who also rely on foreign labour to grow and harvest crops. 

“We just wouldn’t be producing if it was a higher wage. We have to be competitive with other areas,” Lucas said.

Luis Aguiar says that is one of the many contradictions of the program. Aguiar, a professor at UBC Okanagan who has spent years studying migrant farmwork in the region, says the program is usually framed as being mutually beneficial for businesses and workers. But unlike other Canadian workers, Aguiar said, migrant farm labourers have no ability to change jobs, negotiate salaries or any guarantee they can remain in Canada if they so choose to. Businesses, meanwhile, get to benefit from a source of relatively cheap labour facilitated by the Canadian government, instead of being forced to become more efficient or increase their salaries.

“They want to be capitalists, but at the same time, they want all the protections that capitalists want to deny,” Aguiar said. “They want that liberty, but they want state structures to organize their business and provide the conditions for profitability. You can’t have it both ways.”

If the program stopped outright, tens of thousands of Mexican, Guatemalan and Jamaican families would lose their primary source of income, and farmers like Brar say they would probably pack up shop.

“If you want B.C. fruit, we need this program. That’s the end all about it. That’s what it is,” Brar said. 

Jeffry’s story

When Jeffry Hernández began having issues on his farm, he started by contacting a member of the Guatemalan consulate about transferring to a new farm. He provided correspondence confirming the consulate had assisted him on that case. But then, Hernández said, his employers learned about his request and retaliated by sending him back to Guatemala. He returned months later, he said, out of desperation. 

Then, Hernández said, his employers suddenly presented him with a letter written in English and crude Spanish that had been signed with his name. The letter, which Hernandez provided a copy of to The Tyee, claims he had requested vacation and wanted to return home.

Hernandez said he never made such a request. He suspected his employers were trying to find a way to overturn his contract and send him home. He fled on a November night, slipping through the back to avoid to cameras his employer had placed up front.

He spent the next two weeks at a safe house, working with MOSAIC to file a request for an open work permit to the federal government. In 2019, the federal government began allowing temporary foreign workers who faced abuse to apply for a one-year open permit, allowing them to work anywhere they want. Between 2019 and 2022, more than 500 agricultural workers in British Columbia applied for that permit, including Hernandez. 

But it’s a risky strategy. Of the applications submitted, most were rejected. Trevino says that’s because they require workers to have the ability to carefully document their abuse and personal circumstances and to keep detailed records, including paystubs and proof of employment. The federal government only accepts applications written in English or French — not Spanish, the language that most migrant farmworkers in B.C. speak. Trevino says he and Hernández met five or six times to prepare all the applications Hernández had to fill out.

A photo of grapes growing in rows.
Migrant workers make up a majority of the workforce on the province’s fruit farms, who say their entire business model would collapse without their labour.  Photo by Zak Vescera.

Amanda Aziz, a lawyer with the Migrant Workers’ Centre in Vancouver, says the reality is that many workers don’t have the documentation or language skills to successfully apply. 

“Even regardless of any abuse or exploitation, we often meet farmworkers who don’t have a copy of their contract, who don’t have documents from their employer, who may not have copies of paystubs,” she said. When those applications fail, it can leave a worker without an employer and without any clear legal way to remain in Canada and continue working, she said. She says the centre often tries to help workers reapply, but their only option is often to ask a federal judge for review.

“There’s very few legal recourses for a worker to be able to change the outcome of that application,” Aziz said.

Trevino says those applications can also be emotionally difficult for workers to complete. In an emailed statement to The Tyee, he says applications he has assisted with often include bullying, threats of deportation, insults and financial abuse.

“Unfortunately, a considerable number of women applicants are also subjected to sexual harassment or abuse,” Trevino said.

In the long term, Trevino argues migrant workers in agriculture should automatically be give an industry-wide permit so they can work on any farm. That way, Trevino reasons, workers could freely quit a job and move to another.

“This will allow workers to move to another farm or agriculture business if they are subjected to abuse and would put more responsibility on employers who have for years neglected their responsibilities, abused their power, and violated the temporary foreign workers program, provincial employment standards and worker’s human rights,” Trevino wrote in a written statement to The Tyee.

As of August, Hernández was working a construction job in Metro Vancouver, where he says his new bosses treat him much better. But his path forward isn’t clear. Unlike the farm job, his open work permit expires after a year, with no possibility of renewal. As of March, he still hadn’t met his newborn daughter in Guatemala; he wasn’t sure if he would be allowed to visit without losing his right to work in Canada.

Hernández never anticipated speaking publicly about his experiences, especially with the media. He said he stepped forward because he believes there are many, many more workers like him, stuck in a bad situation.

And he thinks more British Columbians should know who picks their food.

“I think they would think differently about it,” Hernández said. “And perhaps not consume it.”  [Tyee]

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