Labour and Social Security Minister Pearnel Charles Jr has announced a slew of strategies the Government has implemented and intends to put in place for ensuring sustainability of the overseas work programme which has been marred by unfavourable reports from both workers and employers.
While highlighting the benefits of the programme in improving the economic prospects of workers and their families, Charles Jr admitted over the last year, the Canadian seasonal agricultural workers programme in particular has been receiving considerable attention concerning the living and working conditions of labourers as well as the treatment of workers by employers.
The minister, who was addressing a sensitisation session for Members of Parliament (MPs) on the overseas employment programme, held at Jamaica Conference Centre in downtown Kingston on Tuesday, noted as well that the programme’s liaison service has been under the spotlight and has also come in for criticism.
He said that some of the strategies implemented to address some of the operations and operational deficiencies in the programme come out of the recommendations of a fact-finding team that was appointed in 2022 by former Labour and Social Security Minister Karl Samuda, in response to allegations made by workers.
Among the measures in place, Charles Jr said, are that liaison officers are now required to make three unannounced visits to farms per year as opposed to one previously, and an additional five liaison officers have been deployed under the programme.
“In addition, to increase the frequency of routine visits, our liaison officers are now concentrating on improving the quality of visits. More time is spent interacting, engaging, listening to our workers to allow for concrete discussion of issues reported and more interactions with our workers,” he said, noting that there has been a dip in complaints since then.
He said that reports are now mandated to reflect more qualitative information on the ground along with photographic evidence. Additionally, reports are also digitally compiled and are monitored by the chief liaison officer in real time.
“We have more administrative officers that have been enlisted to allow for the liaison officers to conduct more field work. All of these things have been done to ensure that the programme is sustainable,” Charles Jr said.
Turning to measures to be put in place to improve the overseas work programme for 2024, Charles Jr noted that greater assistance will be provided to ensure eligibility for recruitment.
“All persons that you recruit, that come to us, even those that are not selected to go into our programme, will be able to have some options/opportunities,” he told the MPs.
“We are discussing, for instance, those persons who, because of inadequacy in terms of reading, did not get on the programme, go in on a literacy programme. Next year, you don’t have to go through the whole process again; you are in the pool,” he said.
Additionally, Charles Jr said the ministry has started discussions and intends to shortly sign a memorandum of understanding with HEART/NSTA Trust in relation to employment-readiness training for all workers upon their pre-selection to the programme.
Charles Jr said that employers will also be invited to support a more robust orientation process locally.
“We have employers in Canada, and we will ask them to come down and for them to be a part of the process of that selection, so that we can be more aware of their needs, and we can identify the best candidates for their specific need,” Charles Jr said.
Greater emphasis, he said, will be placed on the continuous assessment of workers during the period of employment and liaison officers will also have regular consultations with employers concerning workers’ performance.
Further, the minister said an exit survey will be completed by the employer which will provide an assessment of the worker at the end of the contractual period.
“This will help us, in terms of the impact on the placement of the worker for the next season,” Charles Jr said.
Additionally, the programme’s liaison service is being repositioned to be more responsive to the needs of workers and employers by restructuring the way in which liaison officers are trained and assessed.
“The management committee has already started the process, which involves standardising training for liaison officers, ensuring that updated training manuals are in place, and this will also help in ensuring similar standards apply across the board wherever the liaison officers are working,” Charles Jr said.
Also, the ministry is revising the evaluation process for liaison officers and their job descriptions have been revised.
In addition, the minister said communication will be improved with workers through the use of non-traditional tools, such as WhatsApp, virtual meetings, and e-mail. Also, an application is being developed for workers, to enable them to receive information and get support on their phone.
The ministry will also implement a recognition and rewards programme in order to create an incentive for all programme stakeholders to do well, Charles Jr said. This will entail the planning and execution of awards functions to identify and publicly reward workers, employers, liaison officers, members of staff and other stakeholders who have contributed to the development of the programme.