What should have been the smoothest start to the season after three years of pandemic-related hurdles for growers who employ foreign workers has been bumpier than expected.
With regulators keeping closer tabs on hiring protocols, many farm employers in BC found themselves barred from filing applications to source workers from overseas last fall until they had valid certificates from the BC government.
Under legislation passed in 2018, the province requires that employers hiring foreign workers register with the province within 30 days of hiring workers. Registration became mandatory in December 2020.
But registration needs to be renewed regularly, and the result last fall was a flood of applications at the BC Ministry of Labour and a backlog in processing.
“We are currently experiencing an increased volume of applications,” a notice on the registration site says. “Applications are processed in the order they are received and we are unable to expedite applications at this time.”
“Their systems just didn’t keep up to the volume of applications that they received,” says Reg Ens, general manager of the Western Agriculture Labour Initiative. “Nobody anticipated the volume.”
Without a certificate, employers couldn’t obtain federal approval to hire workers let alone arrange travel for them.
A keyword search for “orchard” indicates that no certificates were issued to businesses identified as such in all of December. A search for “farm” retrieved 340 hits, but of the 200 certificates issued since September, 132 were issued this month.
The delays were so bad that industry officials met with the province’s agriculture and labour ministers January 12 to discuss the situation.
“They have heard industry’s concerns that the backlog is creating for the rest of the application process, and they’re taking steps to get through that as quickly as possible,” Ens says.
Government has also expressed openness to sending renewal reminders to employers to ensure a more even flow of applications in future.
“Until this fall, we had never had any complaints,” Ens notes. “Employers we talked to said it was going well.”
BC farms typically welcome about 15,000 foreign workers a year, primarily from Mexico and the Caribbean.
While air capacity continues to normalize post-pandemic, Ens says issues will always arise.
“There’s always another challenge with these programs,” he says.