Saboto Caesar, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries, Rural Transformation, Industry and Labour.
Eighteen Vincentians working on a farm in Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada have been given the options of moving into a hotel or returning home if they find the conditions under which they are being housed intolerable.
Minister of Agriculture Saboto Caesar told SEARCHLIGHT earlier this week that 33 Vincentians were sent to PEI under the Canadian farm workers programme, and of that number, 18 were assigned to a particular farm where “an unforeseen issue” relating to accommodation has arisen.
He explained that all farm owners in Canada now have to meet the necessary standards for accommodation in compliance with COVID-19 protocols.
“…Just like in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), the workplace has to be adjusted,” he said.
This year, 33 Vincentians and 30 St Lucians were sent to PEI to work on farms.
“We sent 63 workers from the OECS to Prince Edward Island and of the 63, … 18 [Vincentians] were on a particular farm and on that particular farm, the farm owner was having some problems in putting the accommodation together,” Caesar stated.
Consequently, makeshift accommodations were put in place for the farm workers.
The Minister disclosed that when the Government of SVG learnt of the issue, they extended an offer to pay for hotel accommodation for the 18 Vincentian workers until the matter is rectified.
He said three of the Vincentians took up the offer and have moved into the hotel.
Caesar said the others have opted to remain on the farm as they are convinced that the matter will soon improve and have noted that work has already begun in this regard.
The minister said two workers have indicated that they may want to return home.
“We have no problem with that, we will provide for that,” he said, adding however, that these persons have not yet decided whether they will return.
Accommodation for the hundreds of Caribbean people who are this year part of the Canadian Farm Workers Programme has come under scrutiny on social media recently.
Posts on Facebook purport to show unclean and cramped
living quarters and a video has been circulated of an apparently ill person who it is said has not received medical treatment.
The Minister noted that the Government has put in place a system which provides for “constant contact” with the workers on a daily basis. He said the farm workers may contact the Ministry of Labour in Canada, the Department of Labour in SVG, and the Eastern Caribbean Liaisons Services (ECLS) headquartered in Toronto, Canada, charged with executing the program.
Caesar also commented that given the circumstances caused by COVID-19, workers are having to adjust.
He said that although there is COVID-19 in St Vincent, Vincentians were never restricted in their movements and even though we have our protocols, they are far less stringent than in other places.
“…Something that we have to understand in St Vincent is that we never lived under a full lockdown,” Caesar commented, noting that this was a “whole different ballgame” in other countries.
“How do I operate now when I go to a farm and then the farm owner is telling me that there’s a supermarket down the road, but I have to either order online and have it delivered,” the Minister said, “or I have to wait until a particular period whereby we will be able to take you in smaller batches.”
For those workers that have been on the program for decades, not being allowed to see their loved ones who reside in Canada would also be challenging, he continued.
The Agriculture Minister declared, “I am treating all of this as day to day issues and problems which will arise as a direct result of adjustments which have to be made because of COVID-19 and what we are doing is that we have increased our communication with the farm owners,” as well as the ECLS, “to ensure that as these issues arise that we will have the solution.”
“We anticipate that because of COVID-19 more issues will arise because the workers are working in an environment, which is a part of the global environment, and we are aware of the global instability as it relates to the pandemic,” Caesar continued.
He said however, if a situation arises where there is an outbreak of COVID-19 on a farm and Vincentians are affected, he would ensure that they get the best healthcare as soon as possible.
“…We have already put in place for the insurance issue to be addressed,” Caesar said, referring to a COVID-19 supplementary medical insurance plan that has been purchased for the workers from the OECS.
The Canadian Farm Workers Programme moved forward this year despite the pandemic, but was delayed.
The minister said it has been “extremely challenging” to move workers to Canada given the need for a mandatory quarantine on arrival, although employees are paid for the period under which they are in quarantine.
The Vincentians who work on food producing farms are on six-month contracts, while others, who work in the medicinal cannabis industry have contracts of between one and two years.
A progress report from the Eastern Caribbean Liaison Service in Canada said in 2019, remittances from Vincentians on the Canadian farm workers’ programme amounted to EC$12.9 million, the most for any country in the Eastern Caribbean.
There are at present 325 Vincentian farm workers in Canada, 133 short of the 458 workers that have been requested from this