Pinder Dhaliwal

B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association president Pinder Dhaliwal, left, standing with past president Fred Steele, is happy to see extra protections in place for seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico and the Caribbean.

Oliver orchardist Pinder Dhaliwal has welcomed back the same seasonal agricultural worker from Mexico eight years in a row.

Dhaliwal also has a temporary worker from Jamaica who has been coming to B.C. for seven consecutive years, but this is the worker’s first summer with the orchardist.

“Seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico and the Caribbean are essential for Okanagan orchardists to get all their thinning, pruning and harvesting done,” said Dhaliwal, who is president of the 520-member B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association.

Dhaliwal employs the two temporary foreign workers, who live in a separate house in the orchard.

In total, 2,800 Mexicans and 950 people from the Caribbean are working at Okanagan farms this season.

Dhaliwal was discussing the numbers Friday because provincial Labour Minister Harry Bains held a news conference in Vancouver to announce the first phase of bringing the Temporary Foreign Worker Protection Act into force.

That first phase is licensing for recruiters who help secure employment in B.C. for foreign workers.

“The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program is exempt from the licensing,” said Dhaliwal.

“Seasonal agricultural workers are recruited by the Mexican Labour Department and the Jamaican federal government. The exemption shows our program works well and is trusted. The association is all for protecting the rights of foreign workers. They have the same rights as any other worker in B.C.”

Therefore, the licensing for recruiters is aimed mostly at those who secure nannies, construction workers and care-home workers.

There is no charge for the licence, but every recruiter must submit a security bond of $20,000 that will be held in trust.

Even if recruiters operate outside B.C., they must be licensed if they recruit workers for jobs in B.C.

Recruiters who flout the law are subject to a fine of up to $50,000 and/or one year in jail.

The same penalties apply to anyone contravening the Temporary Foreign Worker Protection Act.

“Every day, we see cases of foreign workers experiencing exploitation or abuse, such as recruiters taking possession of passports or charging illegal fees,” said Migrant Workers Centre executive director Natalie Drolet.

“Registering recruiters is important to stopping these practices.”

Of the 3,750 foreign agricultural workers in the Okanagan this season, 87% are returnees and the vast majority of them return to the same orchard or vineyard.

“Most are happy to come back to the same orchard year after year,” said Dhaliwal.

“The only reason they don’t is if they retire or maybe they request to go to the Lower Mainland or Ontario to work and see a different part of the country.”

Mexican and Caribbean agricultural workers are paid the provincial minimum wage of $13.85 an hour or a piece rate for picking, which can be no lower than minimum wage but can be higher.

Many Mexicans and workers from the Caribbean are happy to do hard physical work for B.C. minimum wage, whereas most British Columbians aren’t.

B.C.’s minimum wage of $13.85 an hour is well above the minimum wages in Mexico and Jamaica, which tend to range between $1 to $2 an hour.

Orchardist are also responsible for finding housing for all foreign workers, either in accommodations on the farm or elsewhere.

“The majority are on site in portable trailers, similar to those used in the oilpatch,” said Dhaliwal.

“We don’t call them picker cabins anymore.”

Foreign workers pay $5 a day for accommodation, up to a seasonal maximum of $825.

“That’s far less than what it actually costs to provide the accommodation,” said Dhaliwal.

Workers are responsible for buying their own food.

Orchardists pay the airfare for workers to come at the beginning of the season and to return home at the end of it.

Agricultural workers aren’t paid overtime because they are working in an industry that demands flexible, and sometimes long, hours in order to get thinning, pruning and harvesting done along certain timelines in certain weather.

However, Dhaliwal said most workers would never be asked to work more than 10 hours a day.

Potential workers from Mexico and the Caribbean attend seminars in their home country before ever coming to Canada, to go over wage rates, accommodations and health care.

While here, many agencies oversee seasonal agricultural workers, including Employment Standards B.C., Immigration Canada and WorkSafeBC.

In addition, representatives from the Mexican and Jamaican consulates visit workers two or three times per season to check if everything is going well.