Fri | Dec 15, 2017

Doors open in Washington for Jamaican farm workers

Published:Thursday | June 3, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Jamaicans Clifton Brown (left) and Leon Campbell tell of their experience in the Brewster, Washington, area after arriving from their farm-worker housing complex in Monse on May 27. Instead of workers from Mexico, residents are seeing Jamaican men who are all staying at a newly built Gebbers Farm camp a few miles northeast of town. - AP

BREWSTER, Washington (AP):

The panic is over.

Five months after Gebbers Farms fired an undisclosed number of undocumented workers during a federal audit, Jamaican guest workers have started to flow into Brewster to fill some of the jobs.

That's a welcome sign in this town, where residents who held jobs here for 10 and 20 years were suddenly let go following the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement action in December.

Months later, some say the impact wasn't as great as they feared. Many people stayed, or left and came back. The school district - which prepared for a major drop in student numbers - reports that enrolment remained steady, currently at 912 students.

And with new workers arriving, there's renewed hope that business will continue to pick up.

Long reliant on immigrant labour, Brewster residents are reportedly happy to see new faces in their grocery stores, and in the thousands of acres of orchards that surround this small Columbia River town.

The Gebbers Farm camp is made up of rows of bright white buildings separated by walkways, and flanked by a large building where dozens of men eat, wash up after their evening meal, or sit at a long central table to watch a big-screen television at one end of the room.

"I know it's going to get hot, like next month," said Leon Campbell, outside the doorway of one of the farm-worker houses.

Campbell, 39, said he misses his 16-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son back home in the eastern Jamaican parish of St Mary. "I call and I speak to them like twice a week," he said.

Very hard work

The work in the orchards is "very hard," he said. A builder and mason in his homeland, Campbell said the living facilities are good, and he's happy to have the work. He wished that Brewster were a little closer to Seattle. "This is the last spot in America," he said.

Clifton Brown, 33, also from St Mary, said back home he's a farm worker as well. As for coming to the United States, "It's all about work, you know," he said. After just 15 days here, he already decided, "I love it here. I look forward to next year."

The men hesitated when asked about pay. "Today is only eight days," Campbell said, indicating he was still waiting for his first paycheque. He said food prices seemed high.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said he was told that the Jamaican guest workers were coming in stages, and would eventually number about 300.

"I think it's excellent," he said. "They're a really good group. Really polite and fun to talk to. It's amazing to me - they're gone so long from their families. That's what I think would be hard," he said.

Brewster Mayor Lee Webster said the Jamaican workers will be there until October 1.