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COMMUNITY FORUM ABOUT SEASONAL FARM WORKERS WILL LOOK FOR SOLUTIONS TO MYRIAD OF PROBLEMS
There are many burning issues and obvious discord around seasonal farm work in Osoyoos and across the South Okanagan, says Lilly Zekanovic.
The project co-ordinator of a new program aimed to try and bring communities, farmers and seasonal workers together to create a feasible action plan that will have a positive economic impact on farmers as well as bring positive change to each community in the area is excited about a historic one-day forum designed to discuss and come up with solutions to the ongoing problems.
“This has never been done before,” said Zekanovic, who is co-ordinating From Discord to Action: Cultivating Community Change Around Seasonal Farm Work, a one-day forum that will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 20 at the Elks Lodge in Oliver.
“We are going to try and bring together all stakeholders and allow them to address their concerns and come up with some possible solutions to the many ongoing problems that are inherent with seasonal farm work.
“The ultimate goal will be to come up with a strategic action plan that can be put in place as quickly as possible to address the key concerns.”
Farmers and seasonal workers will be invited to the community forum as will mayors and councillors, police officials and anyone else who wants a voice to address the key issues, said Zekanovic.
Zekanovic was hired by the Penticton and Area Women’s Centre (PAWC) back in June after receiving funding from the provincial government and the Vancouver Foundation, which is Canada’s largest community foundation – one that has been investing in Canadian communities since 1943.
There are a myriad of problems relating to seasonal farm work and this community forum is all about having an open and frank discussion about all of them, with all stakeholders having equal opportunity to give their own perspective, said Zekanovic.
“This won’t be about blaming one another, but about talking about the problems that exist and trying to come up with some creative solutions,” she said.
“I know a lot of people don’t sympathize with some of these seasonal workers and wonder why they smell … but if you didn’t have a place to take a shower, then you would smell too.
“The whole idea is to have an open and frank discussion and attempt to come up with a creative action plan to deal with the most pressing problems as quickly as possible.”
For the past two decades, the majority of seasonal farm workers in the Osoyoos area and across the South Okanagan came from Quebec, but summer work subsidies paid for by the Quebec government to transport workers from that province to B.C. have been dramatically reduced or eliminated, said Zekanovic.
There has been an increasing number of workers from Mexico who work here on limited work visas and international residents looking for work on temporary work permits, she said.
The key issue, almost everyone agrees, is providing suitable and adequate housing for seasonal farm workers who come to this region, she said.
The majority of farmers no longer provide housing, leaving the farm workers to find their own accommodations, which has led to many problems as many gather in area parks and beaches and don’t access housing because of the beautiful weather and fact they know they’re in the region for only a few months, Zekanovic acknowledged.
“Foreign workers who come here must be guaranteed accommodation, but that’s not the case with the Canadian pickers from Quebec or other provinces,” she said. “They have nowhere to go … and that’s caused a lot of the problems.”
There are many young people from Quebec who do come to the region with a plan to perform seasonal farm work, but a small number end up loitering on public and private property and do more drinking and partying than picking fruit or vegetables, she said.
These people shouldn’t be considered workers or lumped in with others who do come here to work and make money for themselves and their families, she said.
The community forum will feature numerous roundtables, including ones for farmers, seasonal workers and community leaders, to discuss key issues, she said.
That will be followed by an extended question and answer session and large roundtable to come up with possible solutions in an action plan, said Zekanovic, who will complete a report about possible solutions to key issues following the forum.
There are about 1,500 seasonal farm workers who flock to the South Okanagan every spring, summer and fall and many farmers rely heavily on their hard work to stay in business, so it’s crucial key issues like housing, laundry facilities and pay that will be addressed at the forum, she said.
“These people would like to be paid on time and have some time off so they can do the basics like going for groceries,” she said.
“Because of the transient nature of the industry, there are some key issues and problems that are inherent, but we have to start talking about them and that’s what the forum is designed to do.”
If the forum is as successful as she hopes it will be, Zekanovic is hopeful more funding can be put in place to create a full-time position that would provide advocacy to farmers and seasonal workers in the future.
The provincial government has provided funding for this pilot project and there’s a good possibility further funding would be made available if long-term solutions to the existing problems can be reduced or eliminated as a result of the program, she said.
Anyone with questions about the project or community forum is asked to contact Zekanovic at 250-493-6822, ext. 106 or toll-free at 1-800-493-6822.