November 19th, 2020
We had a total of 21 employees from Mexico and Jamaica this year, four less than what we really needed. Some went home almost a month ago and three more flew out at 3:00 AM this morning leaving us with a crew of nine of which two of our best (Jamaicans, both 10 plus year employees in their early 50’s and extremely proud to have a job that takes them from being poor rural Jamaican citizens to middle class earners) will go home the first week of December. Usually I would keep Vernon and Bradley here until December 15th when they are mandated by government to leave the country but this year there is a two week quarantine upon arriving home in Jamaica whereas there is no quarantine in Mexico. If they were to leave on December 15th they would spend Christmas in quarantine; that’s not acceptable! The remaining Mexicans will fly out on December 15th to thaw out under the sun.
I have hesitated to get into too much of the reality of the farming industry but only talking about production practices leaves me feeling like I am avoiding what really controls our existence down on the farm. So, I plan to risk offending someone and speak my mind because aside from not understanding the actual process of growing food there is an even bigger information gap on what the tides of politics and global trade are doing to our food security and those who try to produce it. I will say, however, that I realize that many of you receiving and reading this are more aware than the average consumer.
There is a fair bit of criticism of the horticulture industry for hiring outside of the country when there are so many unemployed here. The fact is that almost none of the unemployed would even consider lowering themselves to farm work, and when they do almost none of them have the work ethic or physical ability to stick with it even a week. The view society takes on this work is painfully clear when government agencies insist on classing this work as “unskilled labour” when in fact is is highly skilled with knowledge and dexterity built up over decades of working in the industry. Let me also point out, pre-emptively, that there are no government subsidies to bring in foreign labour. Quite the opposite; the added costs of airfare, housing, etc. add $4-$5 per hour in expenses.
This year, with the complexities of bringing in foreign labourers, we ended up four employees short of the 25 we needed to get the job done. To replace four Mexicans would require at least 10 Canadians to achieve the same amount of work. The explanation for this is simple; Canadians, with all of their appointments and “sick days” rarely average more than 30 hours a week whereas our foreign guys average 60 hours per week. Plus, our Jamaicans and Mexicans just simply accomplish more because they are highly skilled at what they do. On top of that, every one of our guys was four to six weeks late starting work due to red tape and quarantine (that’s another mine field field conversation all by itself). That represents an enormous amount of work that didn’t get done. The end result was that we ended up harrowing about 15% of our crops under because we didn’t have the labour to take care of them or harvest them.
Why didn’t we hire a busload of Canadians to fill the gap? (Assuming that there were enough Canadians willing to work, which there wasn’t). It’s actually very simple; Canadians, in general, don’t accomplish enough to justify minimum wage. Every Canadian we could have hired would represent an hourly net loss (and, yes, I will say what’s on my mind!:-)). It was more cost effective to abandon the crops than hire Canadians to care for and harvest them. I think this phenomenon is quite new, owing, in part to the rapid increases in minimum wage (which pushes all farm wages up whether they are minimum wage or not). Over the last 20 years nearly every horticulture farm in the province has had to switch to foreign labour or go out of business. Horticulture is an extremely competitive business; the lowest price almost always rules. Every time we hire more reliable, more efficient labour we become more efficient but because of the extreme competition (mostly in the form of imported product) that efficiency gets translated into price increases not keeping pace with inflation. The end result is that prices are now based on the productivity of specialist labourers from other countries and we can no longer afford to hire locals.
So there is some unsettling food for thought. I could go on indefinitely, and likely will at a later date. The complexities of the state of our food supply system are almost endless. Let me just finish by saying that I think the practise of bringing skilled workers into the agriculture industry is aged one for both the farmers and labourers. Without these workers we would have a lot less fruit and vegetable production in this country and even less food security. Also, remember that this is a huge opportunity for those who choose to come to Canada to work. In the case of Mexico, one of our guys told me this summer that he makes as much money in one day here as he would in two six-day weeks in Mexico and the money from one season can buy him a starter home in Mexico. That’s awesome! It’s not perfect, but it works!
By suppertime today we should have three very happy Mexicans. Feliz Navidad!
Hopefully I haven’t ruined too many appetites.
Keep eating your veggies.