What is the secret to having a happy and productive migrant worker on your farm?
As far as Margarita Caropresi is concerned, the formula is rather simple – treat them with respect and make them feel like part of the team. She added “it really isn’t that much different than how you ensure the rest of your workforce is happy and productive, although there can be some language and cultural issues.”
Caropresi is the editor of Atoctli, a magazine based in Toronto that is geared to migrant workers from Mexico. Her company also provides translation services. Prior to that, she was with the Mexican Consulate and dealt first hand with a number of concerns of migrant workers.
Margarita was guest speaker at a recent seminar sponsored by the PEI Federation of Agriculture, geared to producers who have hired migrant workers in the past or are thinking of hiring migrant workers. The half-day event attracted 20 people and federation Executive Director John Jamieson said he was happy with both the turnout and the participation.
Jamieson noted his group has been doing some work with Atoctli and the PEI Association of Newcomers in an attempt to make the migrant workers feel welcome and ensure language and cultural differences don’t post a problem on farms. That has included producing Spanish speaking videos and information sheets.
Caropresi agrees safety has to be a prime concern and she advises employers to learn a few key verbs in Spanish. For example, if the producers wants an item moved from one place to another, one way to get the message across would be to know the Spanish word for “move” and then to go stand in the spot where the item is to be moved.
“A number of employers use pictures as well and that can be very effective,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to use gestures or body language to get your point across.”
When the workers return to Mexico after each work stint in Canada, Jamieson noted they are asked to rate their work situations. While Island farms generally score well as work environments, he said there is room for improvement when it comes to making the workers feel more at home in the community.
Margarita added there are lots of opportunities for PEI to create a sense of welcoming for migrant workers but added “their most important community should be the farm where they are working—they need a sense of belong and the want the feeling of being part of a team.”
She said the number of migrant workers is likely to continue to grow and she praised PEI and Nova Scotia for taking the lead in bridging the gap between migrant workers and the community at large.
Keith Good has a long and positive experience with migrant workers. He operates a strawberry farm in Fort Augustus, and also works at Brookfield Gardens. Both locations rely on migrant workers for part of their labour force.
“I have found them excellent workers,” Good said following the session. “I agree with everything Margarita said.”
He said the Mexican workers hold their Canadian employers in high esteem. Good said there is high rate of returning workers each year and they usually take it on themselves to show the newcomers what the job entails.
On his strawberry farm, he usually hires five or six migrant workers adding “I only need them for a month so I usually work with other farmers to see if there are other workplaces so we can share the cost.”
Under the two federal programs that allow the agricultural sector to bring in workers, the employer is responsible for their accommodations and transportation. Good said Brookfield Gardens will typically have between three and ten migrant workers depending on the time of year.
Good added the language barrier “presents fewer problems that you think,” adding on his own farm he has used the services of somebody in the community that speaks Spanish. He would eventually like to see the federation have a Spanish speaking employee on staff that could help both workers and employers adding “as more and more farms use migrant workers, it might be something that happens down the road.”