Worker Shortage Leaves Crops To Rot

Worker shortage leaves crop to rot

Chilliwack: Many migrant fruit and vegetable pickers headed home early to Mexico

Glenda Luymes,
The Province
Published: Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ajit Singh Shoker's 150-acre crop of brussels sprouts is ready for eating. But a shortage of farm workers means it will likely never see market, much less a dinner table.

“I will lose all my brussels spouts,” the Chilliwack farmer said yesterday. “There is no one to pick them.”

Like many vegetable growers, Shoker relies on Mexican workers to help with the harvest. Under the seasonal agriculture program, the workers are allowed to remain in B.C. until Dec. 15, but many of Shoker's workers want to return home early to help with the Mexican corn harvest.

It's not the first time Shoker has felt the labour shortage.

Earlier this year, he was forced to leave half his strawberry crop on the field, plus 30 acres of beans.

The losses prompted him to apply for 20 temporary foreign workers from India, a request that was eventually turned down for all the workers but two.

“We followed the process . . . only to have 18 of 20 workers denied the work visa on grounds that the visa officer did not believe they had sufficient ties to India which would make their return plausible,” he explained.

In February, the federal government announced changes to the temporary foreign worker program to address the labour shortage, making it easier for farmers to apply and extending the period workers are allowed to stay in Canada from 12 months to 24.

Shoker called the program a “failure.” A few months after the visas were denied, he's still trying to find out why his workers were turned away.

“Farming is difficult, hard work and increasing the labour force is a losing battle,” he said, pointing to the unwillingness of students to pick berries and vegetables for summer money.

“We can't compete,” he added.

Jerry Alamwala with the B.C. Cole Crop Growers Association said he was concerned to hear about Shoker's situation, hoping it is not “the tip of the iceberg,” indicating problems to come.

“The seasonal workers program has really helped alleviate the lack of workers. But if this is true, it's not a good sign . . . You work all year to get that crop, and if you can't get it off the field, it's all for nothing,” he said.

Shakila Manzoor, regional spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said she could not comment on Shoker's application for temporary foreign workers, but said visa officers ensure each request is “bona fide.”

“There are a number of criteria,” she said.

In order to apply to receive temporary workers or seasonal workers, a farmer must obtain a labour market opinion from Service Canada indicating they have unsuccessfully tried to find Canadian employees to fill the position, said Rob Marshall with Service Canada.

Since the seasonal workers program began in B.C. in 2004, there has been a steady increase in the number of applications, he added.

For Shoker, who received a labour market opinion for his workers but no visas, the politics are less important than his brussels sprouts crop, rotting in the rain.