Farm work threat
With an increasing number of Jamaican overseas farm work programme employees ‘running off’, sometimes before even stepping onto a farm, Labour and Social Security Minister Pearnel Charles Jr is appealing to Members of Parliament (MPs) to dissuade their constituents from engaging in this practice due to its deleterious impact.
Charles Jr made the appeal because MPs have great influence in their official role in the pre-selection process of workers for the programme.
He said that workers going absent without official leave (AWOL) is the primary complaint, specifically from Canadian employers, and warned that if this continues it could put the entire Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Programme in jeopardy.
“What we are seeing is an increase in numbers, and that is something which I am calling on MPs to make sure that you have this conversation with your constituents [that] when we have our Jamaicans go on the programme and run off, or the [unsavoury] attitude or the conduct, it closes the door for hundreds,” he said.
Charles Jr, who was speaking at a sensitisation session for MPs about the programme at Jamaica Conference Centre in downtown Kingston on Tuesday, lamented that there are instances when employees will disembark the aeroplane and never reach the farm, or they may stay on the farm for one or two weeks then run off.
He said that if a stop is not put to this practice, employers will recruit people outside of Jamaica.
“One disgruntled employer can be in charge of 800 spaces for Jamaican workers and if a disgruntled employer is facing the consistent challenge of workers coming up and running off… then they will look towards alternatives to fill positions,” he said.
“This programme started with Jamaica and Canada only, but it is no longer Jamaica and Canada only; it is a competitive process now and there are options available, alternatives. We want Jamaicans to be able to fill those positions. We want Jamaicans to have that opportunity. It is our responsibility to make sure that as we recruit, as we guide, as we orient, we ensure that it resonates that if you do this, you are going to impact [the opportunities of] your cousin, your friend, your brother, your sister, and others to come,” the minister said.
He said that based on the statistical data coming out of a study on AWOL activities, the opportunities for Jamaicans are lessening when they should be expanding.
“This is an issue of great concern. I am calling on our stakeholders, in particular our MPs, to make sure that in your recruitment you are looking on the patterns, [but] to ensure that you, in no way, engage in discrimination,” he said.
He cautioned that while a large portion of people who go AWOL are under a particular age and form a particular pattern, that same person who is under 25 “ends up being the most excellent worker”.
He said that the analysis of the AWOL study, completed in July 2023, “shows that we have some work to do”, but insisted that he “won’t shy away from it… we have to confront it”.
Charles Jr said that based on his discussions with Canadian employers, whom he met with in October last year, if the programme is to continue it is going to require collaboration with all stakeholders “and we are going to have to make sure we are firm in facing the facts”.
“It is my intention that, in being transparent, it will stimulate us to take the action to orient the persons and to recruit in a more deliberate way,” he said, noting that the media also has a role in assisting the Government in communicating with Jamaican overseas workers.
Charles Jr assured that the Jamaican Government has committed to its partners that it will have a more robust orientation programme locally “so that any worker coming out of [Jamaica] will know exactly what they are going to confront. That way, when you go there, you will not have this distance between your expectation and the reality”.
He said that subsequent to his visit to Canada in October last year the recommendations from the fact finding team established by former Labour Minister Karl Samuda were looked into and key actions were identified for immediate follow-up.
Among them, he said, is a re-engagement with employers to reaffirm Jamaica’s commitment to the protection and strengthening of the programme, and to assure them that action will be taken to assist them in terms of the improvement of workers’ attitudes and preparedness for employment.
The Government also promised the introduction of a more rigorous recruitment and selection process, such as the MP sensitisation and the implementation of a more robust orientation process which has already started.
Charles Jr said he initiated the sensitisation session to address concerns related to the suitability of candidates on the programme.
The objective, he said, is to sensitise MPs about the challenges faced by the programme, emphasising the urgency of addressing these concerns; to work together in improving the quality of workers sent to the United States and Canada; and to strengthen and grow the programme, ensuring viable employment opportunities for a larger number of Jamaicans.
He said that this proactive approach will help maintain the programme’s relevance in the international job market.