Canada's migrant agricultural workers deserve full and equal rights. Here's why

By Janet McLaughlin - Published on June 16, 2016
A seasonal migrant worker in Holland Marsh, Ont. (Photo by Peter Power / The Globe and Mail)



Earlier this year, a quiet decision by Loblaw to remove French’s brand ketchup from its shelves was met by an unexpected firestorm of protest from angry consumers. In the weeks following, the brand rose from relative obscurity into superhero status over its local tomato origins. Over the course of 24 hours, Canadians told Loblaw loud and clear that they wanted local Leamington, Ont., tomatoes in the popular condiment gracing their barbequed eats this summer. A surprised Loblaw management team quickly reversed its decision

Supporting local agriculture makes sense. Buying food produced close to home generates positive ripple effects for local economies, lowers greenhouse gas emissions and promotes Ontario’s food sovereignty and security. The great irony is that often our much-celebrated local food system relies on imported labour, under conditions in which exploitation can be ripe for the picking.

I’ve been doing research and health-based community work with migrant farm workers for over a decade. Travelling alongside workers between their Ontario workplaces and their homes in Mexico and Jamaica, I have been continually shocked and saddened by the long-term challenges they face as they spend their adult lives living between two countries.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, a specific stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which was originally designed to help employers fill staffing gaps when local labour supply is not available. While the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has seen some turbulent times as of late, its agricultural branch has more or less remained consistent over the half century of its existence.

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program involves workers (mostly, but not exclusively, men) from Mexico and the Caribbean coming to Ontario for up to eight months a year to work our farms. Some come for decades in a row, returning home to visit family for a few months each winter but never bringing them along to Canada. Children grow up viewing their migrant parents as occasional visitors. Unsurprisingly, depression, family strain and breakdown are common consequences of this type of arrangement.

Employers have the right to choose the gender and national origin of these workers, and their preferences can change from year to year based on racialized and gendered stereotyping. This situation contradicts Canada’s employment equity laws, and generates a sense of unease and rivalry among the workers and their home countries, who know that they can easily be replaced by another group.

Paying Canadian minimum wage to workers who come from impoverished backgrounds in the global south makes competition to enter the program fierce, and it also renders them vulnerable to workplace abuse. Workers depend on these jobs to support their families’ livelihoods, from food to shelter to education. Because the program’s work permits are tied to a specific employer, and a temporary foreign worker’s right to stay in Canada depends on that permit, most workers are too afraid to raise concerns over poor living or working conditions, or other aspects of their employment.

This extreme power imbalance, combined with the risks of working in agriculture (including repetitive and strained ergonomic positions, exposure to chemicals and climatic extremes, machines, blades and unsafe transportation) translate into high levels of injury and illness that often go unaddressed.

These work permits also legally entitle migrant workers to provincial health care, but they often don’t receive it. Injured and ill workers who are no longer able to work are normally quickly and quietly repatriated to their countries of origin, where systems of health care and social service are far less comprehensive.

Recently, a CBC Go Public Investigation raised this issue over the case of Sheldon McKenzie, a 39-year-old Jamaican worker who suffered a head injury at work. His family says they were “forced to intervene to keep him from being shipped back to Jamaica without getting the medical care he required.” McKenzie died in hospital before he could return home.

Such stories seldom make the news, but they occur with more frequency than you would expect. There have been hundreds of workers who were “repatriated” for medical reasons.  Some of them died; others returned home with serious injuries that prevented them from ever working again, or greatly compromised their quality of life.

The compensation system that is supposed to cover such injured workers has systemic gaps in its treatment of them. In its efforts to treat migrant workers as any other Ontario worker, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board has failed to recognize the unique barriers they experience to accessing benefits from afar. Once workers are repatriated to their home countries, they can no longer access the re-employment, rehabilitation and retraining opportunities offered in Ontario. Their benefits are often cut off with the explanation that a suitable job, for example pumping gas, exists in their former region of employment in Ontario. Yet there is no way they can ever return to Ontario to take up such jobs.

The common theme in these tragic stories is one of proud breadwinners who come to Canada in hopes of building a better life for their families, and return home as “broken bodies,” unable to support their families and living with constant, sometimes permanent, pain. Whole families become impoverished and hurt in the process. Meanwhile, employers simply replace them with the next person in line, and Canada wipes its hands of any long-term responsibility. Essentially, these are disposable workers.

Women, who comprise about three per cent of the program’s participants, also often experience sexual harassment and pressures on the job. Unplanned pregnancies are common and, while trying to hide pregnancies from employers for fear of losing their jobs, any access to prenatal care, maternal care, or modified work is impossible.

The heart of workers’ vulnerabilities lies in their limited rights, both on paper and in practice. Unlike other types of temporary foreign workers, seasonal agricultural workers are denied access to permanent residency. Archival documentation demonstrates that the program’s origins were explicitly racist in nature: the federal government wanted to ensure black Caribbean men brought to do the difficult work on local farms would never be given the chance to settle in these communities. Fifty years later, no rationale has been provided as to why this immigration restriction remains on a group of workers who are desperately valued by their employers and needed in the economy.

These workers are also unable to access EI benefits, despite making full contributions to EI and taxes.

At the provincial level, all agricultural workers are excluded from the Labour Relations Act and are therefore unable to bargain collectively as part of a union. They are also excluded from certain provisions of the Employment Standards Act.

Even those rights which are workers’ in practice remain difficult for migrants to attain due to language and logistical barriers, along with the skewed power relationship with employers, in which workers are reluctant to complain.

There is currently hope of addressing the long-neglected needs of migrant farm workers on both a federal and provincial level. Parliament is conducting a review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program that began in May, and is expected to conclude with a set of recommendations released on June 15. Meanwhile, the Ontario government is re-examining the Employment Standards and Labour Relations Acts as part of its Changing Workplaces Review, to be reported on this fall.

Advocates are asking for specific program reforms aimed at targeting the vulnerability of workers. Providing them with permanent immigration status, rather than one that is “permanently temporary,” is a key demand, and one that will be made again this fall when migrant workers and their allies plan to march from Windsor to Ottawa to coincide with the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program's 50th anniversary.

Other recommendations include open or flexible work permits, an appeals process before repatriations, full inclusion in provincial labour standards (including the right to collectively bargain), and reforms to make health care and compensation systems accessible for migrant workers.

Migrant workers cannot vote and have little to no political capital. Politicians will be more likely to make these significant reforms if citizens demand change on their behalf.

Much like the one that brought French’s ketchup back to the Loblaws’ store shelves, it’s time for a citizen uprising to show collective support not only for Canadian farmers, but also for their migrant employees, the invisible backbone behind labour-intensive Ontario agriculture. Without them our local food system would not be possible, and we would have no choice but to reach for products made with produce grown afar.

Migrant agricultural workers deserve full and equal rights. It’s 2016. The time is ripe for change.

Janet McLaughlin is Assistant Professor of Health Studies and Research Associate with the International Migration Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is co-founder of the Migrant Worker Health Project.

Migrant Dreams, a film by Min Sook Lee, premieres on TVO this fall. Watch the director speak about her film, which screened at Hot Docs in May.

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