Some unruly farm workers taint prospects of recruits

THE undesirable conduct and poor work ethic of some Jamaicans participating in Government’s overseas farm work programme is making it difficult for other nationals to secure employment.

This was disclosed by permanent secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Colette Roberts Risden on Wednesday at a meeting of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) as she was grilled about this and other programmes under the purview of the ministry.

Roberts Risden, who was responding to a comment on the lack of suitable recruits for the programme by Committee Chairman Mikael Phillips, lamented that it is something the ministry is concerned about.

“The Minister [of Labour and Social Security] and a couple members of the management committee travelled to Canada recently and one of the biggest complaints is the quality of the new worker that is coming to work, [particularly] the work ethic. 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,” she said.

She stressed that the ministry, Members of Parliament (MPs) and everybody involved in the programme will have to redouble their efforts because some of those workers are “making it bad for Jamaica and other workers”.

“It is better to send 1,000 quality workers…than we send 2,000, [where] 1,000 is quality, 1,000 isn’t quality [and] that 1,000 taints the other 9,000 that were there previously and affects their return. So we have to keep the supply of good workers, people who understand what they’re going into,” she said.

Roberts Risden pointed out that farm work in these countries — United States and Canada — is not like Jamaican farm work and can be rigorous, hard work. She said that some recruits may not be prepared for the level of work, noting for instance that picking strawberries requires a lot of stooping or bending as the fruit grows on the ground, or a person who is afraid of heights would not want to go on a ladder to pick apples.

In response to Phillips’ query about the ministry team’s recent visit to Canada, triggered by complaints from farm workers, Roberts Risden said that the majority of employees are working in good conditions.

“But like everything, even in Jamaica, even in the US, wherever you go, you’re going to have some employers that are…not necessarily the best employers,” she said.

Roberts Risden said that an area that should be focused on is what mechanisms are there to address these issues when they arise, when the workers have complaints, such as the ministry’s liaison services.

“That’s the very reason why we have liaison officers to be a bridge between the employer and the worker. Sometimes it’s even a communication challenge, not being able to understand each other. I use loosely ‘hush’ if somebody says, boy, I’m not feeling well. In Jamaica, it may not mean anything but for some other culture, using ‘hush’ means you’re trying to tell me to shut up, when that’s not the intention. So just even simple things like that,” she said, adding that liaison officers also help with workers who get in conflict with the law.

She noted as well that the Government of Canada has several mechanisms where workers who feel that they are in an unjust situation can report it anonymously or they can report it giving their names.

“So what I can say is that certainly, from what I have seen, the majority of workers are working in favourable or acceptable conditions. There is, however, a spectrum of conditions but it doesn’t mean that it is unacceptable,” she said.

Phillips then asked what mechanism is now in place to deal with those identified that are not up to the standard for Jamaican workers.

Roberts Risden, in response, said: “We have done quite a number of things because it first starts with educating our farm workers. Some workers believe that if they complain about the employer that they may lose their spot the following year.”

“Some do,” Phillips quipped.

“We have to communicate and educate them [on] how they contact their liaison service. Sometimes the issue depends on how you treat with matters, depend on what the nature of the issue is. So if the issue is, for example, the housing accommodation, the liaison officer will try to work with the employer to fix it because you will have, for example, workers complain about not having a fridge or stove, so you will through moral suasion try to work with the employer,” she said.

Roberts Risden further pointed out that while all of these living accommodations pass Canada’s housing, inspection, there are varying standards.