The clear need to protect North American farm work programmes
This 2022 file photo shows a Jamaican farm worker loading the apples he picked onto the back of a tractor at Scott Farm Orchard in Dummerston, Vermont, United States. (Photo: AP)

There can be no denying the value to Jamaicans of farm work programmes in North America, which goes back decades.

It started in the 1940s at the height of World War II as the war effort tugged away many in the United States who previously worked that country's huge farm network.

Responding to the US farm lobby, the British colonial Government and US authorities agreed to arrangements which allowed tens of thousands of people from Jamaica and other British Caribbean territories to work seasonally on US farms.

The US programme has lasted to this day — despite ups and downs — consistently easing high unemployment in Jamaica and the wider region.

More than half a century ago, Canadian farms joined the programme — bringing employment for thousands more in these parts.

There have been negatives down the decades, exemplified in no small fashion in recent times by worrying allegations by Jamaican workers of poor treatment on some Canadian farms; and of discrimination which allegedly led to workers being sent home for whistle blowing.

Of concern for Jamaican authorities were reports from activist groups likening work conditions for migrant workers on some Canadian farms to "modern day slavery".

Yet, there can be no denying the continuing importance of such work in Canada and the United States for thousands of Jamaicans, their families and the Jamaican economy.

Hence, anxiety voiced by permanent secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security Mrs Colette Roberts Risden that behaviour and work ethic of some of those most recently recruited to Canadian farms …"[are] making it bad for [other Jamaican workers]".

Mrs Roberts Risden told the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee that "one of the biggest complaints is the quality of the new worker… One employer complained about a worker who said that he thought that he was coming to do a nine-to-five job and didn't realise it was going to be so cold and things like that…"

We live in hope that this case of one "new" worker's reported mindset is not commonplace.

But also, we are left to wonder about the recruiting methodologies.

We know that political representatives join the Ministry of Labour in playing significant roles in recruitment.

Presumably, those applying are made aware of the nature of the work they are expected to do and are also rigorously assessed as to their suitability.

In that respect, while we wouldn't wish to discriminate against people from urban centres, it seems obvious that in general, recruits from a rural, agricultural background are better placed to work on farms abroad.

Clearly, also, basic communication between employers and workers on North American farms is essential — something underlined by Mrs Roberts Risden as she spoke to the importance of liaison officers doing their jobs properly.

Nor should it be taken for granted that at the local level recruiters, recruited, and administrators, always understand each other.

Problems and challenges will never be entirely eliminated. But we believe that if sufficient basic attention is paid to proper recruitment; and to communication at all levels — locally as well as between employers and Jamaican workers on North American farms — tensions and discomfort can be much reduced.

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