Orchardist responds

I am writing in response to recent articles with comments from those protesting farm worker housing in Coldstream:

Since the inception of the fruit industry more than 100 years ago, large numbers of workers have been a central fact in Okanagan orchards. The make-up of the farm workforce has changed over the years, most recently to include Mexican workers brought in under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. In my own case, my workforce is about 50 per cent Mexican workers, with the remaining 50 per cent being Canadian and international youth travelling on working holidays.

In the previous century, farm workers often had to fend for themselves in make shift camps, or in the classic old pickers cabin. Thankfully, regulations are now in place stipulating standards of accommodation and services. The facilities are third-party inspected, and must meet standards set by the provincial government.

I note that recently nine growers in the South Okanagan were expelled from the SAWP program after their housing was found in breach of these standards. It’s sad it came to this, but it proves the system works. The cause of the recent controversy, our new staff facility in Coldstream, will be compliant with all regulations and represents an investment of more than $1 million. We rely on our seasonal employees, who work long and hard and deserve to be well taken care of.

Aside from the nature of our accommodation, I want to come to the defense of our employees. Some have stated in public meetings that my staff will cause them to fear for their children’s safety and the security of their property. Other public statements have been made that our staff will destroy the fabric of the community. Vilifying a group of people based on their societal status or race is not the Canadian way, at least it should not be. In the case of Mexican SAWP workers, these visitors to our country are pre-screened for criminal records and must go through exhaustive selection processes before being accepted. The proof of the pudding is in the pie. For the last decade, there have been more than 2,000 SAWP workers annually in the Okanagan and there is no evidence that these folks are a menace to public safety. Likewise, in the case of Canadian or international staff we hire, we have careful vetting as part of our hiring policies, aiming to ensure good character in our staff.

Public statements were also made belittling our employees as having no ties to our community and no ties to our country. I beg to differ. In the case of our SAWP staff, I am proud of our 87 per cent return rate, and they are tied to this community, coming back year after year. As an example, four of the Mexican staff presently residing in our Coldstream cottage are in their 11th season with us. They are friends as well as employees. Our foreign staff comes here to work and to support their families at home, that’s all. When in Canada, they shop locally for groceries and amenities, pay Canadian taxes; and also pay Employment Insurance and Canada Pension Plan contributions, programs which by definition they rarely benefit from. The term transient worker is technically correct, but practically inaccurate. Our Mexican workers essentially have a second home in Canada, to which they return each year, to my and their mutual benefit.

A miniscule fraction of Canada’s land is suitable for high-value horticulture crops. The production from these lands is a significant driver of economic activity, and diversification from Canada’s traditional resource extraction base. As a society, we need to understand that if this land is to be put to its highest use and play the full part it can in our economy, the associated people, infrastructure and equipment will be a part of the package. In order to lead, it is time that policy makers speak for the broad interests of the community and nation as a whole. And please, let’s have a discussion based on facts rather than unfounded fears.

David Geen, Coral Beach Farms