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Mark Ricketts | Overseas farm workers lighten shadows at home

Published:Tuesday | May 12, 2020 | 12:12 AM
Farm workers board a bus to head to the airport at Overseas Employment Services offices of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security at East Street, downtown Kingston. They are a part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Programme heading to Ontario, Canada.
Farm workers board a bus to head to the airport at Overseas Employment Services offices of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security at East Street, downtown Kingston. They are a part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Programme heading to Ontario, Canada.

The coronavirus pandemic is still taking its toll. Some individuals, businesses, and government entities have stayed strong, working as hard as ever. Thank heavens for that!

For others, it is hard to capture the image of those who write and phone and make personal entreaties as to the pain of joblessness, the unbelievable reality of being laid off, the hardship of laying off workers, and the sheer inability of coping with being at work one day, with income coming in, to being unemployed the next day, it is very hard.

The same for businesses. Billions have been lost. Suddenly, there are no customers, there are no buyers, there are no entertainment shows, there are no tourists. For some, darkness stalks the land in anticipation of the lengthening shadows. For others, this is affliction’s darkest hours.

That image could be contrasted with seeing – and picking up information over time – the hundreds of farm workers who leave here most weeks for Canada and the United States. The final tally, some 14,000 farm workers go overseas to do yeoman’s duty – back-breaking manual work averaging 50 hours a week- for up to 10 months of the year. They work in tobacco and horticulture and with greenhouse crops, vegetables, cherry, and ‘American’ apples.

An impressive statement of how Jamaican farm workers are viewed, the work they do, and their level of competence, Cass Gebbers’ farm in Washington state’s Okanogan County, on the US Canada border, will be taking 635 of them at the end of this month.

The farm workers are confident of where they are going, as they have been travelling overseas for years, but they are also apprehensive about leaving their family, friends, community, and country, in these uncertain times.

They don’t talk much. Occasionally, the anxiety becomes evident with sentences such as “This corona thing serious. Where I am going, not so bad although I hear over 40 tested positive in other farming areas. But it is yard that worries me. The family is here, and I am not here to protect them.”

Duty calls. The farm workers have to go. Every year is urgent. Money is always needed back home. But, somehow, this year is different. It is as if in their own little way, beyond family, they have to help offset the hardship in their country by being an oasis of light in the shadows.

Social status

It is well known that they are not big money earners, neither are they given much status and positioning in the country of their birth, although if they are from small, rural communities, they have standing.

There are so many things they do in the wider world in silence; there are so many things they accomplish for Jamaica without much fanfare. This year, the prime minister should have a special day for them, allowing all Jamaica to say thanks.

Collectively, they remind me of the verse of a poem,

Sometimes they shade the landscape wide,

Yet leave one place in lightness,

Which when all else is dark besides,

Smiles with a double brightness.

The farm workers will arrive and immediately start working the long hours. On payday, arrangements have already been made – even if they are in distant rural farming communities – that portions be transferred to loved ones back home. It certainly will come in handy. With the spin-off effects, their communities will be better off.

EXCELLENT PERFORMANCE

Jamaican farm workers, year in and year out, have performed at such extraordinary levels that they receive high commendations from their employers, and, like our athletes, our doctors and nurses in hospitals and private practices in England, the US, and Canada, they have staked out for the country an image of excellence and dedication that has defined Brand Jamaica.

Work is tied in with a level of patriotism and a sense of Jamaican pride that they walk with. Helping them to achieve that success overseas, one person that comes to mind, among others, is former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller.

As minister of labour earlier in her political career, she infused that indomitable spirit of work and country and made it a passion, a duty, to elevate our farm workers to being Jamaican pioneers in a foreign land.

To understand how significant this is, the US and Canada are reeling from COVID-19 and from high unemployment, yet a special directive came from the White House to continue Jamaica’s farm work programme. This is huge for us at this time. The supererogatory (work beyond the call of duty) performance of Ambassador Donald Tapia is worthy of special mention. In many areas, he is trying to assist Jamaica’s foreign exchange earnings capacity and prospects.

Also deserving of commendations are our prime ministers, including our current Prime Minister, Andrew Holness; Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kamina Johnston Smith; her predecessor, A.J. Nicholson; and many other stalwarts over the years – the late Hector Wynter, Pat Durrant, Don Mills, Angela E.V. King – who helped to maintain such excellent relations with so many countries and regions all over the world.

Jamaica stands as a proud beneficiary of our collective vision in engaging in reciprocal relationships that have endowed to the good of the country.

When programmes, like those of the farm workers, are non-contentious (although there are some COVID-19 concerns about rights and liabilities), usually good leadership and management are in place.

Coordinating 14,000 workers in scattered pockets over large land masses while evaluating work performance and remuneration, training and productivity, as well as ensuring the right of entry and the commitment to returning, requires effective cross-border layering of high-level administrative talent as well as years of experience.

It is not surprising that the US Farm Work Programme, which is administered by the Ministry of Labour working in conjunction with Florida Fruit and Vegetables, has been around for 77 years.

Of significance also is the work of former and present stalwarts Harry Edwards, chief liaison officer; John Wright, chief liaison officer, Canadian diplomats; Joseph Hobbs, managing director, Florida East Coast Travel Services; 30-year veteran Robert Morrison, county manager, US Farm Work; and Delroy Palmer, director, Overseas Employment.

Woe, COVID-19! Unfortunately, the success of the farm workers programme is abbreviated by disappointment with a sister programme – the H-2B Hospitality component. That is on hold, leaving 10,000 workers who benefited last year at home. Do we take comfort that half a loaf is better than none?

Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.