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Severe labour shortage to harvest crop plagues the citrus industry; up to $15 million in losses possible

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Editorial use only Harvesting oranges. Boy using a long pole with a hook on the end to bring down oranges from trees in an orange grove. This site is owned by Citrus Products of Belize Ltd. Citrus production is the main agricultural industry in Belize. Photographed in Pomona, Belize.

Posted: Friday, March 4, 2022. 3:17 pm CST.

(Photo credit: Jim West/Science Photo Library)

By Aaron Humes: It has traditionally been one of Belize’s ‘Big 3’ agricultural exports along with sugar and bananas, but citrus is at something of a crossroads.

On Thursday, Breaking Belize News (BBN) received a complaint from a “large citrus grower” who reports that the industry has a major shortage of labour to harvest the current citrus crop.

“At the moment, we are faced with [a] severe workers problem and [as] everyone is aware it’s mostly immigrants, but the immigrants [do] not want to come and work [be]cause of expenses that [they] are required to pay, such as work permit, border fees, and other fees. [Worse,] that these people are poor and coming to look for a better salary, but with all those expenses, how can these people come and expect to see money?” the businessman questioned.

We sought comment from Hugh O’Brien, Program Manager for the Citrus Revitalization Program, who confirmed the labour shortage situation and painted a challenging situation for the ongoing crop.

In an exclusive interview with BBN, O’Brien explained that the labour shortage has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused Belize to put in stricter protocols for migrant workers to come to Belize. Before, migrant workers were able to come to Belize with a permit only; but now, these workers need to have a passport, be fully vaccinated, provide a recent negative COVID-19 test result and now they are also required to take out health insurance – and this is all before the work permit can be applied for. For Guatemalans, the passport application and renewal process must be done in Guatemala City, and for some time the process for applying for a new passport has been suspended in Guatemala. “And while industry owners are assisting with the testing expenses, this has not been enough to attract these migrant workers back into Belize,” he noted.

O’Brien said that in the last crop season, some Belizeans were involved in harvesting; however, with the economy improving it has “become harder to get those few locals back to harvesting again. Ideas of bringing people from the prison, from Southside [Belize City], from San Ignacio/Santa Elena to harvest the citrus crop have all failed in the past. Harvesting citrus does not appear to be an attractive income earner for the average Belizean worker, even though farmers have raised the price to harvest oranges up to $1.75 and $2.00 per box.”

And even with that Belizean input, the estimated loss was 300,000-500,000 boxes for last year’s crop. For the current crop (2021-22), orchards are estimated to deliver close to 2 million boxes of oranges and grapefruits, merely “OK” in his judgment but an improvement from last year.

However, just under 500 thousand boxes – less than a quarter of the crop – have been delivered to the factory to date. Daily deliveries hover around 10,000 boxes; this represents a mere one third of the estimated daily output for this time of year. According to O’Brien, deliveries should be more like 30 thousand boxes per day during the peak of the crop season, i.e., from February to April.

O’Brien noted that “at this rate the industry stands to lose anywhere between 500,000 to 800,000 boxes of fruits this year – a significant hit for an industry trying to get back on its feet”. The only good thing, he said, “is that the dry season is delayed and as a result significant fruit drop has not yet commenced and in some areas, there is a larger second crop due to a delayed crop cycle and this gives a little bit more of a time window to address the labour shortage.”

O’Brien emphasized, however, “in March as the dry season sets in, the fruit drop is expected to commence and intensify as mature fruits are shed. A loss of 800,000 boxes is a significant loss of around $15 million in foreign exchange earnings to Belize and it is not wise for us to just watch this loss go by.”

While a number of Ministries from Health to Immigration to Labour are involved in the approval process for migrant workers, we understand the matter is before the Minister of Agriculture Jose Mai, and a decision is expected to be made shortly by the policymakers on how they can help the industry resolve this labour crisis, and avoid such a devastating economic blow to the citrus industry.

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