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Farm worker shortage worsens

While the Ministry of Labour & Social Security has dispatched almost over 9,000 farm workers to Canada since the start of 2023, providing labour for agricultural producers in the North American country, local farms are in distress due to a derth of accessible labour, local agricultural authorities indicate.

The ministry recruits workers for the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Programme, called SAWP, and the Low-Skill Stream. As at mid-September 2023, 8,519 workers were dispatched under SAWP, and 578 under the Low-Skill Stream.

Overseas employers can hire temporary foreign workers for a maximum of 24 months, or for eight months, depending on the programme.

Locally, however, there are potato farmers in St Catherine who are said to have reduced output by as much as two-thirds, because they cannot find the manpower to work the land. Banana farmers and some livestock farmers are also in distress.

Winston Simpson, CEO of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, RADA, which has over 250,000 farmers in its registry, says that labour shortages for farm have reached a critical tipping point.

“Labour is a serious issue. You cannot get anyone to work,” said Simpson, who noted that for some of Jamaica’s farms the “terrain cannot be mechanised”.

Simpson said that on average, Jamaican farm workers are paid $3,500 a day and provided with transport to and from work, lunch and two breaks.

“The money is guaranteed, but still the numbers are dwindling,” he said.

Simpson, calculating weekly income for agricultural workers at $17,000, said the lack of farm workers suggest that Jamaicans, increasingly, have developed a dislike for manual labour.

While smaller farmers might not be considering mechanisation as a solution, in particular because of the hilly terrain of some holdings, technology is what larger farmers have been using to reduce manpower needs.

Still, the large farms too have encountered the same problem.

“It is a fact,” said Jeffrey Hall, CEO of Pan Jamaica Group, which operates 700 acres of farms in St Mary. The assets were formerly held by Jamaica Producers Group, but were acquired by and merged into Pan Jamaica at the end of March.

The labour shortage is a bigger issue for some more than others, but, “in general, there is a challenge in securing team members to undertake agricultural work,” Hall said.

“What we [at Pan Jamaica] are having to do is to take measures to increase our productivity. We have had to use the applications of drones for pest control, which has been a significant technological change. Instead of individuals. We also have fertigation systems instead of doing it by hand. That is really the challenge,” he added.

The drone, which was a $10-million investment, “is precise, reliable, and efficient”, said Gayon Douglas, brand manager of the JP Farms division.

“The same drone technology is also utilised to count the farms plant population accurately with a direct stream of traceability,” he said.

Other technology utilised on the farms include fertigation pumps that cost $2 million to install and administer, in order to reduce the dependency on manual labour; irrigation sensors costing $5 million to reduce the risk of over-irrigation, which previously required five workers; machinery, including mini-excavators used to develop drainage systems and install subsurface irrigation.

“We have also invested approximately $15 million in a boom-sprayer on our farms which allowed us to repurpose 20 workers to fill other roles. With these investments in technology, we have also invested heavily in training our local talent to operate and maintain our investments,” Douglas said.

The company employs about 300 workers on its farms that produce bananas, pineapples and other crops, and has kept numbers at that level even though the acreages under pineapple have been expanded.

“Technology allows for the team to be more efficient,” Hall asserted.

Still, the company has also implemented various measures, including performance-based incentives, as enticements for workers, as well as to improve productivity, according to Douglas.

Small farms, generally, can’t afford that level of expenditure and are therefore reliant on people to tend and harvest crops.

Notwithstanding the demand, however, RADA’s Simpson said that for farm work, even though “money is guaranteed and paid”, the number of available workers keeps dwindling.

He noted that the problem has emerged over time because Jamaica has not done a good job of teaching youths about the value of work.

The upshot, he added, is that Jamaica might have to resort to the strategy used by the Canadians and Americans to resolve the issue, import farm workers.

It’s unclear, however, whether Jamaican farms are in a position to compete for foreign labour.

Research sources indicate that the average farm worker salary in Canada is CDN$30,103 per year or CDN$15.44 per hour. Entry-level positions start at CDN$27,300 per year, while more experienced workers make up to CDN$40,950, one source said.

Those wages are four times better than the $17,000 weekly income quoted by Simpson.

The current exchange rate for one Canadian dollar is around J$116. The equivalent of farm work wage in Jamaican currency would be around $1,740 per hour or $69,000 weekly.

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