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Seasonal workers pick daffodils on a field in Saanichton, 15 kilometres east of Victoria in March of 2007.

DON DENTON/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa's overhaul of the temporary foreign worker program has largely spared the agriculture sector because of "proven acute labour shortages."

That distinction is welcome for employers like Rhonda Driediger, who expects to hire about six seasonal workers from Mexico at her Langley berry farm this season.

"I'm looking to hire six forklift drivers, I'm looking at 30 resumes [from Canadian applicants] and I'll be lucky if two are suitable," Ms. Driediger, owner of Driediger Farms and chair of the B.C. Agriculture Council, said on Monday.

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Ms. Driediger expects to hire Mexican workers in farming-related jobs under Canada's seasonal agricultural worker program (SAWP), which began in the 1960s and was extended to B.C. in 2004.

Under reforms announced Monday, SAWP will be subject to greater government oversight.

But other reforms, including new processing fees, will not apply to SAWP. The program brings workers from Mexico and Caribbean countries, including Jamaica and Dominica, to Canada for agricultural jobs and also features bilateral agreements between Canada and participating countries. Ottawa said SAWP and other primary agricultural occupations would be unaffected by the changes "as there are proven acute labour shortages in this industry and the unfilled jobs are truly temporary."

In B.C., the number of workers hired through the program has climbed from a few dozen to several thousand, making the program a mainstay for vineyards, orchards and vegetable growers in the Fraser Valley and the Okaganan.

"I would describe it as being critical," Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association, said on Monday. "It has allowed people to change their business plans from phasing out [of the business] to stabilizing and in some cases even growing."

On Monday, following months of controversy over Canada's temporary foreign worker program, Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney announced reforms to address concerns that its widespread use was driving down wages and squeezing Canadians out of jobs. The reforms included scrapping provisions that allowed employers to pay temporary foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than prevailing Canadian wages in some circumstances.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story, which also appeared in print on Tuesday, incorrectly reported that Rhonda Driediger of Driediger Farms in Langley intends to hire Mexican workers under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program as forklift drivers. In fact, those positions are not eligible for the SAWP program and will be filled with Canadian workers. Driediger Farms hires SAWP workers only for farm-related work as prescribed by the program.

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