A Mexican flag flies in front of a new, 6,000-square-foot building at Hidden Terrace vineyard, near Oliver in the Okanagan Valley.
Inside, bottles of hot sauce sit on tables in a kitchen that looks out onto rows of gewürztraminer grapes, which are tended by 18 Mexican workers who live in the building eight months of the year. They're here under a program that provides foreign workers for agricultural jobs that Canadians won't do – more than 3,000 a year in British Columbia alone, up sixfold since 2005.
So numerous are the newcomers that businesses have sprung up to serve their needs. Jany Lopez arrives at the vineyard weekly with boxes of tortillas, tips on money transfers and fluent Spanish that's a balm for men who spend much of their days communicating with employers through sign language and halting English. Ms. Lopez, who grew up in Mazatlan, started last year with a street stand in Oliver catering to Mexican palates, and this spring expanded with a store, Tienda Mexicana.
"At first I didn't think of a store," she says, "but people started looking for me every Friday."
Those hungry, homesick customers are not only the foundation of Ms. Lopez's fledgling business but, increasingly, the sweat and muscle behind B.C. wines. The workers come to the Okanagan through Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. Founded in 1966, the program brings more than 20,000 workers a year to Canada, mostly from Mexico, to toil in orchards, greenhouses and vineyards. Expanded to B.C. in 2004, the program last year brought more than 3,000 Mexican workers to the province, with nearly half of them headed to the Okanagan and the rest to the Fraser Valley.
Of the Mexican workers employed in the Okanagan, about 40 per cent work in the wine industry, 40 per cent in orchards and 20 per cent in vegetables, says the Mexican consulate in Vancouver.
For Okanagan employers, some of whom have spent thousands on accommodations for foreign workers, the program provides reliable, affordable labour, a necessity for the finicky business of wine-making.
For labour and advocacy groups, however, the growing number of Mexican workers in the Okanagan is troubling, and part of a broader pattern of Canada outsourcing agricultural labour to workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Regulatory oversight has not kept up with the growing number of foreign workers in the region, says Reasha Wolfe, an advocacy worker with the Penticton & Area Women's Centre. "The main concerns are the lack of enforcement of WorkSafe regulations and the requirements agreed upon in the contract," Ms. Wolf says.
WorkSafe, the provincial body in charge of worker health and safety, is concerned enough by a lack of reports on farm-based incidents that it's teamed up with the Mexican consulate on a safety-awareness project. Starting in 2012, the program will coach Mexican workers on matters such as pesticide use, safety gear and transportation laws before they come to B.C.
The program will also encourage workers to report problems, whether they involve working or living conditions, Mexican vice-consul Estela Garcia says. "One of the main reasons [for the program]is to give workers the confidence that it's okay to report, it's okay to question, it's okay to prevent," Ms. Garcia says. "So they need that confidence."
WorkSafe monitors work sites, not living quarters. Employers in the program have to provide housing-inspection reports to Service Canada, a federal agency, and the Mexican consulate as part of the program. The consulate investigates worker complaints about substandard living quarters, but it can take up to a week to do so, Ms. Garcia says.
Living conditions vary. At Lidhar Orchards near Keremeos, four workers live in a seasonal cabin with a small kitchen and a balky stove. The bathroom is run down and there are no laundry facilities. The accommodation was inspected and meets the needs of workers, says farm owner Sukhvir Singh, adding that several workers have returned to his fruit-growing operation each year since 2007.
"If they are not happy, why would they keep coming back?" Mr. Singh asks.
He says he would have nobody to pick his crop if it weren't for foreign workers. That reality drives the program. Steve McDonald, the manager at Hidden Terrace vineyards, advertised locally for 18 vineyard workers. Nine people applied. He hired all of them but only two are still working at the vineyard. The Mexicans, meanwhile, stay and have only to walk out the front door to be at work.
At Blue Mountain Vineyard, foreign workers live in new, purpose-built accommodation with a fully equipped kitchen and a washer and dryer. Five workers, idled by wet weather, rush to buy tortillas from Ms. Lopez and agree to answer questions from a reporter, with Ms. Lopez translating.
Ranging in age from 28 to 47, most have logged several years in the program. Asked what struck them most about Okanagan vineyards, they cite technology – the irrigation systems and tractors that makes their work easier.
Most say they plan to keep working in the program for a few more years or until their bodies give out, saying they cannot make the same amount of money in Mexico. For their eight months here, they gross about $16,000, which is reduced to about $9,000 by the time they pay all of their costs, including taxes and housing.
They're proud of the money they send home. At least one of them has made enough to buy a house in Mexico. All of them have kids. All hope those children get an education and grow up to do something other than what their fathers do, so far away from home.
"I don't think any of us want our kids to do what we are doing right now," says Alfonso Galindo, speaking through Ms. Lopez. "We are trying to teach them that there's a different kind of life."
CONTRACT TERMS FOR MEXICAN WORKERS IN B.C.
Mexican workers in the Okanagan Valley are hired under a seasonal agricultural labour program that dates back to 1966 and was expanded to British Columbia in 2004. They work in vineyards, orchards and vegetable production, with some returning to the same farm or vineyard each year.
Terms of the 2011 contract for Mexican workers in B.C. include:
- Minimum employment of 240 hours for terms of six weeks or less, and a maximum term of eight months
- Average minimum work week of 40 hours
- Pay of at least the equivalent of $9.28 per hour for every hour worked harvesting on a piecework basis. For work other than harvesting, workers must be paid no less than B.C. minimum wage, currently $8.75
- Employers are to cover two-way flights from Mexico City to Canada
- Employers are to provide suitable accommodation. If workers' accommodation is not on the farm, the employer is to pay for transporting them to the work site
- Employees are to return promptly to Mexico on completion of their authorized work period
- In the Okanagan, workers typically arrive in March or April for spring pruning and leave after harvest. Harvest begins with grapes for white wine in early to mid-September and can continue until early November.