116 farm workers US-bound as Gov’t balances lives and livelihoods

ZAVIA Mayne, the minister of state in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, is seeking to allay fears surrounding Jamaican farm workers heading to the United States as part of the overseas employment programme in the middle of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

One hundred and sixteen Jamaicans are scheduled to leave the island today to work on Gebbers Farms, a leading producer of apples, pears, and cherries in Washington. But, with the US being the epicentre of COVID-19, there are fears that the farm workers could be putting themselves at risk.

Up to yesterday, the US had recorded just over two million novel coronavirus cases, with an estimated 114,000 deaths,

But speaking with the Jamaica Observer following a ceremony to dispatch the farm workers yesterday, Mayne argued that the risks of the Jamaicans contracting the virus are being managed.

“Certainly, we would have addressed our minds to the global pandemic, but at the end of the day, as we are more educated and informed about this virus and what the experts are saying, we recognise that COVID-19 is going to be with us for a very long time,” he said.

“Our position is to balance lives and livelihoods. This is a programme that has been of some vintage, 77 years in existence. On the two sides there are expectations: Our farmers who travel to the United States on an annual basis, they are expecting to go, and the employers who send for these farmers, they are expecting them to come.

“What we know is that protocols have been developed and, as a ministry, we ensure that we do our best in communicating and beseeching our workers to comply with the protocols. The employers have also given us the assurance that they, too, will take the time to advise the Jamaicans about the protocols and impress upon them the need to comply,” added Mayne.

He noted that the Jamaican farm workers will be quarantined for 14 days when they arrive in the US, and argued that every effort will be made to keep them safe.

Mayne also scoffed at recent claims that with the novel coronavirus pandemic, Jamaican workers could be easy prey for individuals involved in human trafficking.

“The fact of the matter is that this is a programme that is the product of a bilateral relationship between the United States Government and the Jamaican Government; both governments have an interest in the programme. We are aware of the challenges that come with human trafficking and neither government will allow human trafficking to become an issue,” said Mayne.

Earlier, US Ambassador to Jamaica Donald Tapia, in a thinly veiled reference to the allegations of possible human trafficking of the Jamaican farm workers, told those scheduled to leave the island today that their efforts were appreciated and that they would be protected.

“Keeping in mind that… the benefits that an American worker is entitled to, you are also entitled to, and I want to make that perfectly clear. You are entitled to the same benefits as our workers,” declared Tapia.

“Ultimately, however, the programme is about the work you do. You are making a difference for the farms where you will be employed while you will be earning to bring home,” added Tapia.

In the meantime, the farm workers were uniform in their acceptance of the COVID-19 risks in the US, but with many travelling on the programme for several years — including two who have been going for 35 years — they argued that the benefits outweigh the risks.

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