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seasonal employees

A pickers shack on S. Sundher Orchards farm in Kelowna September 13, 2012.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Mexican officials have warned some B.C. farmers that they could lose hiring privileges under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program as a result of substandard housing provided for employees.

Ten employers have had workers transferred away from their sites to other B.C. operations, mostly as a result of alleged unsatisfactory accommodation, while another 42 employers have been put on "probation" over issues that include not implementing a recent minimum-wage increase, Edgar Hurtado, vice-consul with the Mexican consulate in Vancouver, said in an interview this past week.

The consulate's biggest concerns include overcrowding and the lack of smoke alarms.

"Housing is something that I consider a big challenge for all the participants in this program," said Mr. Hurtado, who moved to Vancouver in April and has since visited SAWP employees in the Fraser Valley and the Okanagan.

"Those are not the conditions that you are supposed to have for temporary workers in Canada. And not for any worker in this country."

The apparent crackdown involves only a handful of the nearly 400 sites – which include nurseries, greenhouses, vineyards and orchards – that use the SAWP program in B.C., Mr. Hurtado said. But it highlights some of the tensions that have emerged since the federal program was expanded to B.C. in 2004. The program allows Canadian agricultural employers to hire seasonal workers from Mexico and some Caribbean countries, including Jamaica.

Since 2004, the number of SAWP employees in B.C. has climbed from a few dozen to nearly 4,000 and foreign workers have become a key driver behind B.C.'s $4.5-billion worth of annual food exports.

Mexico's role in the program is already under scrutiny. Last year, a B.C. local of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union alleged that Mexico was blacklisting migrant workers because of their union activities in B.C.

Mr. Hurtado rejects those allegations and says Mexico respects workers' rights under Canadian law. The case remains before the provincial Labour Relations Board.

As to warnings issued by the consulate over the past few months, Mr. Hurtado would not identify any of the employers, citing privacy regulations.

But one farmer whose operations were singled out says his workers' quarters meet program guidelines, including mandatory inspections.

"All of the houses were inspected by an inspector for the Canadian government," Dave Sundher, owner of S. Sundher Orchards Ltd., said Sunday in an interview.

Mr. Sundher, who grows cherries and apples near Kelowna, has been hiring workers under the SAWP program since 2004 and employed about 70 this year. Mexican officials visited his farm in July and told him some quarters were not satisfactory, Mr. Sundher said.

At the farm, workers stay in bunkhouses. When The Globe visited one workers' cabin, it appeared to lack smoke alarms. Mr. Sundher said workers' quarters are equipped with smoke alarms but that they could have been removed by employees.

He also said he has taken steps to address concerns raised by the consulate, by making another building available for workers to provide more space and by sending drinking water for testing. The water was found to be drinkable, he said.

B.C. employers work with Canadian and Mexican government officials as well as local governments to monitor workers' conditions, said Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association.

In an e-mailed statement, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, which runs the SAWP program with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said temporary foreign workers have the same rights and protections as Canadian workers under applicable federal and provincial regulations.

Employers can become ineligible to hire foreign workers if they do not meet program requirements, the agency said, adding that it does not release information on individual employers due to privacy concerns.