As soon as I saw the large group standing outside the “Services Canada” – I could tell they were Mexican. I also assumed they were recently arrived participants in Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker’s Program (SAWP) – and I was right. SAWP was established in Canada in 1966, but it has only been open in British Columbia since 2004. For many of Mexico’s unemployed farmers, it is a preferable alternative to crossing the Rio Grande.
To say they were surprised to hear me speaking Spanish is an understatement – even after I explained that I had lived full time in Yucatan for more than 40 years, and now I live in Kamloops part time.
“I am from Merida,” one guy called out, “where is your house?” I told him, and a big smile spread across his face. My new amigos wanted me to tell them about “Desert Hills Ranch” – the farm where they would be working. I had never heard of the place, but I assured them it must be big if so many had been hired.
They said they would be given time for shopping after their papers had been processed. I pointed out “Value Village”, a good quality second-hand shop in the next block, and the super market, down one more block. “Come visit us,” they said as we waved goodbye.
Once home, I looked up the SAWP program and I learned that through the SAWP, employers must provide housing for their workers, although sponsors are allowed to charge rent of $5.36 CAD per working day. The workers’ flights to and from Mexico also have to be paid by their employer. On some farms, 3 meals are provided for $12.00 a day. If meals are not prepared for the workers, the employer must provide a cooking facility, equipment, utensils and fuel. Depending on the type of work the workers do, they are paid by the amount they harvest or $10.85 CAD per hour. If they work more than 8 hours, they are paid overtime. Life insurance and health care costs are also covered by the employer.
One worker I spoke with had been in B.C. the four previous years and he said, “There is a lot of clarity about the work that is expected and protection for the guys who come up here.” He emphasized that the contracts are strict, but he has never had any significant problems with the program.
In the ten years since SAWP started in B.C., farm owners have come to rely on the program, to the point that many could not operate without migrant workers from Mexico. The online article quoted a manager, “The workers coming from Mexico are experienced and they’re reliable. It is difficult work and it’s not easy to find a source of workers locally.”
When I googled “Forest Hills Ranch”, I found that the place is a local tourist attraction. It offers fresh produce for sale and special events are staged throughout the year. One reviewer wrote that the restaurant offers the “best tacos outside Mexico”. Obviously the Mexican employees work in the kitchen as well as in the fields.
To me, the SAWP sounds like a well-thought-out program. The most common employee complaint I read against the SAWP is that it does not lead to permanent residency in Canada – the workers cannot stay in the country for longer than 8 months at a time. As well, temporary farm workers are under contract with a single employer and cannot change jobs without the written consent of that employer. While some do move from farm to farm throughout the season, their right to be in Canada is tied to the contract with their sponsor.
My sister and I plan to visit Desert Hills Ranch this summer, or maybe for Fiestas Patrias and again in the fall when the farm has a big Pumpkin Patch festival. And of course, I want to see how my 150 new amigos are faring!
If you want to visit Desert Hills Ranch, check out the facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Desert-Hills-Ranch-140871702651700/
*** Photo credits: All images are from the farm’s website and facebook page.