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Sikhs in Canadian raspberry farms

world Updated: Jul 17, 2007 11:21 IST

IANS
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Many Sikhs and Mexicans are being employed in raspberry farms across Canada where they do odd jobs of pruning, weeding, planting and picking, earning $8 an hour. Indeed, the demand for immigrants with agricultural backgrounds is growing in the country.

Gurmail Singh Cheema, a migrant worker, came from Punjab. He is familiar with mangoes but his fingers are now stained red from a fruit he never tasted before coming to Canada. He has a basket secured to his waist with orange twine.

In 1996, he was in Punjab running his own 35-acre farm. He had five labourers milking his cows, picking his tomatoes and cutting his sugar cane. Now, he gets up every morning at 4 am to pray, have breakfast and leave his Brampton home in a maroon minivan, picking up other Sikh farmers on street corners en route to a raspberry farm, The Star reported.

"Now I am the labourer," said Cheema, 64, who came to the country to earn more money. Soon after he started working in the farms, he became the foreman because he spoke limited English. Most others don't. The farm workers get $8 an hour.

"There are not enough reliable Canadian workers that will do this kind of work," said Andrews, who has owned a fruit and vegetable farm for 27 years. "We have put advertisements in the paper for people to do weeding and picking."

The issue has also raised serious questions about agriculture. How sustainable is it to rely on imported workers? If students head north to plant trees during the summer, why don't they want to work on farms? And, how local is local food, if it's grown largely with imported labour, flown in to do the job?

"What's better for the economy of Canada? A Mexican picking a tomato in Mexico that you're going to eat, a Mexican picking a tomato in California that you're going to eat, or a Mexican picking the tomato in Ontario?

"For every foreign worker that comes to Canada, 2.1 full-time Canadian jobs are created in trucking, packaging and the supply chain. We're creating more than 30,000 jobs as a result of foreign workers," said Ken Forth, a farm owner.

Many lobby groups in Canada believe that foreign migrants with agricultural background should be encouraged to take up farming.

"There are many immigrants with agricultural experience coming to this country," said Iffat Zehra, founder of an agency called Community Economic Development for Immigrant Women. "Why are they driving taxis and doing odd jobs?"

But it's an uphill battle.

"They're scared," said Mitchell, a researcher at the University of Guelph's Centre for Land and Water Stewardship. "They've never farmed in this country. They have limited knowledge of the four seasons. They don't know the soil. There's a huge uphill challenge to buying a farm."