Jamaican government plans to improve overseas farm work program

By Neil Armstrong

Jamaica’s Minister of Labour and Social Security Pearnel Charles Jr. has announced plans to improve the Overseas Employment Program, better known as the Farmwork Program. This follows recommendations that a fact-finding team made in April 2023 and a visit that the minister made to farms in Canada and the United States later that year.

Some of the 108 Jamaican farm workers who arrived on April 3 at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Over 2000 workers are in Canada now, by May the figure should rise to 5000

In a statement to parliament last week, the minister said he recently held a successful sensitization session with members of parliament.

“We cannot deny that this programme has had an impact on thousands of lives, families, and communities. As we move forward, we are making every effort to ensure its sustainability,” he said.

Charles Jr. said over the past 80 years, the programs have evolved from where Jamaica was the main supplier of labour to now, “a highly competitive labour environment which demands us to be more prepared and responsive if we are to maintain our competitive status and secure additional opportunities for our people.”

He said during his ministerial visits to both Canada and the United States last year, he spent a lot of time listening to employees and employers. They highlighted several challenges which the minister said the government is making every effort to address.

The Welcome Team that met the Jamaican farm workers, left to right – Desmond Daring, JN Money; Orville McIntosh, Jamaica Liaison Service; Sheldon Wright, Jamaica Liaison Service; Kurt Davis, Jamaica’s Consul General at Toronto; Nadine Wint, JN Money; Althea Riley, Jamaica Liaison Service; Paula Fennell, Manager, JN Migrant Worker Program; and Claude Thompson, JN Money Regional Manager.

“Some employers expressed disappointment about the number of workers who go AWOL (absent without official leave). Apart from jeopardizing the programme this also results in high business costs to employers.”

Charles Jr. said he “gave a commitment to improve the selection process and to better prepare our candidates to perform well.”

He told parliament that the government will introduce a range of strategies to boost the program. These include building the capacity and employability skills of workers through human resources development and training, improving service delivery to both workers and employers through the Ministry and the Liaison Service, and strengthening the capacity of the program to satisfy the needs of workers and employers.

Regarding worker selection, he said as a part of the regular process candidates are required to be literate and numerate. The government is enhancing the assessment process with a psychometric tool to get better insight into the personality profile to determine best fit.

The Ministry of Labour and Social Security will be collaborating with HEART/NSTA Trust to prepare workers for work through employment readiness training. Candidates will also engage in crop propagation courses at one of the agricultural institutions.

Charles Jr. encouraged his fellow parliamentarians to conduct their own screening and to select suitable candidates for the program. Last week, the ministry hosted two online sessions to provide guidance to the MPs and members of their constituency teams.

The appointment of the seven-member team by Jamaica’s Cabinet to investigate reports on the working conditions affecting workers and treatment of workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) came in the wake of media reports, as well as a letter to the Minister of Labour and Social Security from the advocacy group, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, alleging among other things that the SAWP is “systemic slavery,” said the report.

Some famers had complained that the newer workers seemed unaware of the type of work demanded on the program.

The team recommended that the orientation should incorporate a mandatory requirement for imparting knowledge in the rudiments of farming, and to assess the level of employability skills to ensure that the workers are equipped to take part in the program. They should also receive certificates and be prepared to sign a document to indicate that they have been prepared and are ready to travel.

The report also called for more information and education about the role and responsibilities of the liaison officers to better manage the expectations among farm workers.

Althea Riley, acting chief liaison officer in Toronto, says the Jamaica Liaison Service is doing things differently during this time of transformation.

On April 3, she welcomed 108 farm workers at the airport alongside Jamaica’s consul general Kurt Davis; staff from the Jamaica Liaison Service; Claude Thompson, regional manager JN Money Services; Paula Fennell, manager JN Migrant Worker Program; and JNA staff.