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March 27, 2023

Compañero, the Spanish word for a male buddy or bro, is laden with more meaning than meets the eye when used between agricultural workers from Central America. It’s a bond forged though long hours of hard work in a foreign country, undertaken to support family and put food on their table.


Such is the case for Jorge Osorio, one of 196 Guatemalans employed by Windset Farms. Since 2015, he’s been making the trek from Santa Rosa, Guatemala each year to work on Windset’s 68-acre greenhouse operation farm near Delta, British Columbia. Boasting a family back home with four young children, he is happy to give them educational opportunities he never had, including learning English.


At Windset, Jorge has, in his own words, “found a place where I fit in, my skills have improved over the years and my superiors have noticed so more responsibilities have been given to me and I like the fact that now I have more ‘thinking’ tasks. I feel that they trust me.”  Leaving behind very hard economic circumstances in Guatemala, he has improved his life dramatically at Windset, allowing him to become debt-free after his first two seasons.


Osorio finds his living conditions at Windset to be comfortable, with all workers having equal access to all amenities. The safe living quarters at Windset inspired him to recreate a similar sense of security for his family in Guatemala, resulting in the construction of an 8-foot gated wall around the family home.


In the past, Windset brought in all its workers from Mexico under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) but, says foreign worker / health & safety manager, Tony Pacheco, “the program’s restrictions didn’t work for us. Workers can only be here for eight months, and all workers must leave by December 15th.”


The annual greenhouse transition to new crops requires a clean-up late in the year. The need to bridge from late-season to new-season crops resulted in Windset pivoting to the AgStream program which allows two-year contracts. It’s also an employer-to-employee relationship, sometimes brokered by a recruiter.  


As Pacheco explains, the Guatemalan consulate was very helpful in the conversion and initially ten workers arrived as part of a trial. “The AgStream program doesn’t have the restrictions that SAWP has, so it works better for us,” says Pacheco.


For its part, Windset Farms continues to work hard at strengthening the bonds with all its temporary workers. As marketing manager Randi Church explains, Farmworkers Awareness Week, the brainchild of a U.S. organization called Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), is March 27-31, 2023. It’s an outreach program that partners with growers and retailers for a more transparent food chain. Special events are planned, but more importantly, the farm organizes soccer matches from spring to fall and on a regular basis,  brings a food truck on-site.


As the pandemic fades, it has left an unexpected legacy. The environmental, social and governance (ESG) movement is gaining steam as investors look to identify both material risks and growth opportunities. Bad housing for workers? Or illegal migrant workers? That’s a black eye and a media nightmare.


ESG thinking has resulted in on-the-ground management practices that are holistic in their scope: making workers’ daily lives more comfortable, making food packaging more planet-friendly, and measuring greenhouse gas emissions from transports. Food companies such as Windset Farms are beginning to tell their story using these new metrics, stories of being transparent about the journey and not pretending perfection.


“The fresh produce industry has been severely challenged in recent years by the combination of COVID, supply chain disruption, inflation, uneven regulation, labour shortages and more frequent extreme weather events,” said Peter O’Driscoll, executive director, EFI. “As a multi-stakeholder collaboration, EFI’s role is to support the industry to overcome these challenges through workforce engagement, in ways that bring measurable value to workers, employers, retailers and consumers alike.”


One EFI project was to conduct more than 1,300 interviews with 650 guest farmworkers to understand their challenges and to gather potential improvements to the recruitment process. The report, 10 Ways to Improve Recruitment of Guest Workers, According to Farmworkers, is now available online.


Canada, of course, is not the only player in the temporary foreign worker marketplace and competition is fierce.  In the U.S., the H-2A program touts 317,000 foreign workers and counting as of fiscal 2021. As with any marketplace, such competition can’t help but drive up costs.


British Columbia, through its Western Agriculture Labour Initiative (WALI), is focussed on maintaining a competitive edge for its agricultural employers. Reg Ens, general manager, supervised a new website that went live in 2022 with a login portal that allows employers to independently check the status of paperwork for temporary foreign workers. About 6,500 workers arrive in BC every year.


David Mutz, chair of WALI’s labour committee, comments, “The system is not perfect, but employers have the ability to change arrival dates of workers under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. The new system still requires a lot of staff in the background but the savings are in the back-and-forth of phone calls.”


One area that demands improvement is the ability of BC employers to build new housing. Mutz adds that municipal and provincial regulations are hindering this process.   


As highlighted by COVID pandemic disruptions, enhancing access to international labour sources has become a critical factor in Canadian food security. In fact, so pressing is the current dearth of workers that at the March 16th annual general meeting of the Fruit & Vegetable Growers of Canada a resolution was passed to identify foreign worker source countries beyond the current list of Barbados, eastern Caribbean, Jamaica, Mexico, Trinidad and some central American countries.


Support for farm employers across the country is currently provided through FARMS (Ontario and the Maritimes), FERME (Québec) and WALI (Western Agriculture Labour Initiative). Despite operating in different geographies, these organizations are dedicated to a common goal -- creating innovative solutions for employers and participating countries to support the cost-effective and reliable recruitment of temporary foreign workers. Today, and into the future.

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Submitted by Karen Davidson on 27 March 2023