Worker housing concerns growing in Okanagan

By Peter Mitham


“Right now, we have a patchwork quilt that’s working, but it’s not working as effectively as it could be,” says Rhonda Driediger, president of Driediger Farms Ltd. and co-chair of the BC Agriculture Council’s labour committee.


While other provinces have taken the lead in regulating worker housing, BC has one standard for domestic workers and has left industry to establish guidelines for foreign workers employed through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP).

Rhonda Driediger

“We’re really providing the oversight,” Driediger says. “It really should be a ministry activity. And it’s all on-farm housing – whether it’s temporary foreign worker program or domestic [worker] housing.”


SAWP began in Ontario in 1966 and expanded to BC in 2004. Today, all 12 provinces participate, with 42,973 foreign farm workers across Canada last year; 7,550 worked in BC.


The provincial programs are subject to the terms of the federal program as well as provincial labour regulations, which aren’t always in harmony.


SAWP guidelines prohibit the use of tents, something BC regulations governing work camps – including in the agricultural sector – allow for domestic workers. The guidelines allow bunkbeds for foreign workers, but the province’s work camp regulations prohibit them for domestic workers. Uniform registration of facilities would also be nice.

Complicating matters, municipalities have jurisdiction over what gets built in their boundaries.


“All municipalities can do is discuss how something is built; is it following the building code?” Driediger says. “But they can’t do the rest of it – is this a suitable site to have workers in the first place? Is it maintained at the level it needs to be maintained? Are there televisions and access to telephones? … So we’re still having to go back to our own guideline, which is produced by industry and agreed to by the different consulates. But there is no one oversight.”


BC Ministry of Agriculture staff directed Country Life in BC to its guide, Bylaw Development in Farming Areas, when asked what the provincial standard is.


That document, released in 2015, establishes a minimum farm parcel size of 10 acres for any property hosting farm worker accommodation. It stipulates a minimum ceiling of 40 workers for all farming operations except greenhouses, for which the minimum ceiling is 130 workers. It further recommends requiring temporary farm worker housing meet industry’s guidelines for housing SAWP workers.


The ministry knows of 11 local governments, both municipalities and regional districts, that regulate farm worker housing, at least for temporary foreign workers. All are in the Lower Mainland and Okanagan Valley.


It hasn’t stopped heated debate from occurring in Kelowna – one of the municipalities regulating housing for foreign workers – which faces an increasing number of applications for permanent worker housing on farmland, something not recommended under ministry guidelines.


Since the province gives local governments permission to allow extra dwellings for farm workers “if the number of residences is commensurate with agricultural activities being undertaken on the parcel,” this has put Kelowna in the cross-hairs of residents and farmers alike.


 “The number of workers that they need is more than the five or six they might have needed in the 1970s,” explained Melanie Steppuhn, a land use planner responsible for suburban and rural planning with Kelowna, last summer. “So the farm worker housing is becoming concentrated. They want them on one farm rather than having them all on five farms.”


Flashpoint


This has generated pushback from local residents, who don’t want to see farmland developed.


Kelowna gave first reading to a new farm worker housing bylaw on April 10, which will now proceed to public hearing and second reading on May 2.


The bylaw exempts accommodation for 40 workers or less from municipal approval processes; farms seeking to house more will require a zoning variance.


Kelowna claims the new bylaw was developed with input from the BC Fruit Growers Association, something the association denies.


“The city has not consulted so the only opportunity for response is at this hearing,” said Glen Lucas, general manager of the BCFGA.


The lack of engagement from the city frustrates him, especially as the association intends to participate in a consultation process the Central Okanagan Regional District is hosting on its own proposed seasonal worker housing bylaw.

 

Several other municipalities regulate farm worker housing or otherwise make provision for it in municipal policies, given its importance to local farming operations. A review of farm worker housing policies across the province the Community Social Planning Council commissioned in 2010 found that 26 municipalities and 16 regional districts had introduced or considered some manner of regulation of farm worker housing.


Since then, additional work has taken place. Kamloops considered the potential of regulating farm worker housing in 2012 and last year, the Cariboo Regional District adopted a policy that says “a building permit for ‘Farm Worker Housing’ shall not be unreasonably withheld.” Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen, meanwhile, has identified a need to update bylaws to reflect provisions for farm worker housing.


Separate quarters


Complicating the farm worker housing issue are discussions aimed at resolving a complaint the United Food and Commercial Workers union filed with the BC Human Rights Tribunal alleging the discriminatory nature of the SAWP program.


“Unless you specifically ask for a woman, you’re getting a man,” explained Stan Raper, co-ordinator of the union’s migrant agricultural worker support programs. “There’s women that are more than willing to do farm work, and most of them are quite capable for doing the job. So we’re saying the system is flawed; it needs to be fixed.”


BC Agriculture Council executive director Reg Ens is leading industry’s efforts to resolve the complaint, which he says stems from worker housing requirements.


“Under BC health regulations, housing for work camps, you have to provide certain segregation of men and women,” Ens says. “If I’m requesting one worker come back that’s a male and my accommodation doesn’t have the segregation, I’m not going to ask for a female because I’ll be in breach of [the] legislation. … How do you practically bring those two regulations into harmony?”


While there’s no sense of how many female workers are not finding work through the program, Ens says about 4% of foreign farm workers in BC are women – more than in any other province.


Growers like Driediger – whose entire workforce, domestic and foreign, is more than 60% women – says she would hire more if housing arrangements allowed it.


She has a 21-person work camp with six trailers and a full kitchen, dining room, lounge and other facilities. Three rooms are singles and the other nine are doubles.


“We would build another camp if we could, but I’m kind of out of room,” she said. “There’s a lot more to it than just the UFCW coming in and saying you have to hire more women.”

Vol.103 Issue 5
MAY 2017

CLBC April 2017 cover Country Life in BC May 2017 cover Headlines

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