Erwin and Dorothy Wiens have been travelling to Jamaica every winter for the last decade. They have come to love everything about it — the climate, the “unbelievable views,” the food, and especially the people.
A big part of the trip is visiting the men who work on his farm, and over the years he has come to know their families, and consider them friends.
Wiens says as a smaller farmer, he has only six offshore workers, “and because we’re a smaller farm, we work together,” he says.
“It’s hard not to become involved in their personal lives.”
Working closely with them, he hears about their families, and when they go home, he says, “they tell their families about us.”
His relationship with his offshore workers, and their relationships with each other, he says, is no different than any group of employees working together.
“I consider myself lucky that we’re a smaller shop, and that the guys like each other. I’m so blessed to have such good guys. Their families are great, and they’re fun people. We all get along.”
Over the years, says Wiens, “the dynamics of the offshore workers have changed. The respect factor has changed. Everybody gets now that we’re not going to get anywhere without them.”
When they come to NOTL to work, they have credit cards, they have driver’s licences, and he makes sure they have vehicles, he says.
“I want them to be able to drive, not ride bicycles. I want them to be safe,” he says.
They have a house to share which was built in 2005, each with their own room, and satellite TV — he doesn’t believe farm workers should be living in conditions that a farmer wouldn’t want to live in himself.
The raise in minimum wage, while not easy to absorb, “was huge for them, and outweighs the negative for me. It makes a huge difference in their lives. They have houses at home, they have vehicles, and that’s because they work here. They can send their kids to school — they have to pay for school in Jamaica. The next generation will be educated. They couldn’t do that if they didn’t work here.”
The men understand that sometimes they have to work a lot of hours, and they take personal pride in the work they do, says Wiens. “They do a good job because it’s important to them. And I make it clear it’s a two-way street, that their work is important to me. They need the job, and I need them.”
Wiens says if he wants to get away for a week, they can do the job without him. “They’ll never let me down.”
One worker, Ivan Dillion, who has been working on his farm for 36 years, another almost 20. The more recent addition to the Wiens team started in 2007.
He’s not the only farmer who has developed relationships with his workers, who understands the importance of treating them well and values their work.
But he acknowledges not all workers have the same positive experience, or the same good living conditions.
“There are still some negative things out there,” he says. “But if you take the attitude that these men and women are here to help us, you realize they’re no different from anyone else, just working to put food on the table. They leave their family for upwards of eight months to do a really hard job. They work in cold, in heat, sometimes in really crappy conditions, and if we didn’t have the offshore work program, this town wouldn’t be the same. We have 18,000 people in town, and there is an influx of thousands of people every year to work on our farms. They’re adding to the economy not only through their work but in the money they spend while they’re here. And in this industry, they are the farmer’s number one asset. The ground is important, but we wouldn’t be able to work the ground without them. And as a farmer, you become invested in their lives and family just like you would with any co-worker.”
There is still some work to do, he adds, toward better understanding, and the need to treat all farmworkers with the respect and dignity they deserve. “We all have to live up to this responsibility,” he says.
He commends individuals such as Jane Andres, and organizations, including Cornerstone Church and other agencies such as the Caribbean Workers Outreach Project which are helping to improve the quality of life of farm workers while they’re in Niagara, and also making the community more aware of the role it can play in their lives.
NOTL resident Mark Brown recently dropped off about 70 ski patrol jackets to Cornerstone Church for the offshore workers when they arrive. Brown, president of the Canadian Ski Patrol, Central Zone, said the uniform colours have changed to red and white, so the older version of blue and yellow jackets couldn’t be used. Some were gently used, but most were new. However, the badges had to be removed, and a group of locals, including Wiens and his wife Dorothy, gathered at Cornerstone last week with their seam rippers to ensure the jackets are ready when the men and women arrive to work.
“We’re doing a better job now of acknowledging them as part of the community, of making them more a part of the community,” Wiens says.
“Some of the workers who come here have been residents of NOTL eight months of the year for more than 30 years. They’ve lived here longer than they’ve spent at home, and they have created a whole subculture with people from other farms, because they’ve known them for 30 years or more,” says Wiens.
Living conditions are also improving. “There are strict regulations, and they should be highly enforced. We get inspected every year. We’ve come a long way in the last 10 years, but there is always room for improvement,” says Wiens.
“These men and women are irreplaceable.”