By Chris Ramsaroop
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) which brings migrant labourers from the Caribbean and Mexico to Canada every year. Today there are about 34,000 migrant labourers in the program in Canada. They are employed in every province except Newfoundland. Migrant workers are hired for periods ranging from eight weeks to eight months a year, and are assigned to a particular employer and must return home at the end of their contract.
In 2015, the Agri-Food Economic System (formerly the George Morris Centre), an employer- based agricultural think- tank described the benefits of the SAWP program as a ‘lynchpin for Ontario horticulture, supporting an economic impact of $5.4 billion.’ Simply put, there would be no agricultural industry without the men and women from the global south.
There are many wrong assumptions in the popular media about migrant workers. It has been said that migrants are stealing Canadian jobs and leading to an overall deterioration of the Canadian labour market. However, this is not true.
First of all, migrant workers are not coming in droves. All migrant workers (temporary foreign workers both non agricultural and agricultural) account for a mere five percent of the total Canadian labour force. This is a very small component of the labour market and we should be concerned about myths about the total amount of migrants in Canada.
Second the weakening labour market is occurring because of the deterioration of standards for all workers. Weaker employment standards, the absence of enforcement and a declining rate of unionization are the reasons for the increasing precarious labour market.
It’s not the fault of migrant workers who face a double whammy of being employed in terrible jobs and hired under restrictive immigration laws that deny them the ability to change employers and to exert any control of their workplaces. Agriculture continues to be one of the most dangerous forms of work that simultaneously exclude all farm workers the right to overtime, holiday pay, right to minimum hours of work and whole host of other benefits.
While we mark with pride the significant contributions made by Caribbean farm workers, at the same time conditions need to change. International headlines have raised concerns over the plight of migrant workers who have become sick, injured or who have died while working in Canada.
Earlier this year, international attention was focused on the accidental death in the workplace of Sheldon Mckenzie a migrant farm worker from Jamaica. Similar concerns have been raised in the past. In 2002, Ned Peart, also from Jamaica, was crushed to death by a tobacco kiln near Simcoe, Ontario. To date, in spite of requests from family members of the deceased there has never been a coroner’s inquest into the deaths of these men and in fact there has never been an inquest into the death of any migrant worker in Canadian history.
Concerns have also been raised about how injured and sick migrant workers are medically repatriated or sent home prematurely rather than receive treatment here in Canada.
In 2015, the Canadian Medical Journal documented nearly 800 migrant workers who were returned to the Caribbean and Mexico for injuries and illnesses sustained while working in Canada. Leon Ferguson, a Jamaican worker, became nearly paralyzed while working in Canada. Rather than ensure that he was healed properly, his employer and the government liaison officer attempted to have him sent home before he received medical support.
On paper, migrant workers are supposed to be treated the same as Canadians. However, the reality is quite different. Whether its access to entitlements such as Employment Insurance, Old Age Security or Healthcare, migrant workers are denied access because of their temporary status. Migrant” temporariness” is another misconception of the SAWP program. In my many outreach trips, I have met many migrants who spend up to eight months a year for decades at a time.
Immigration restrictions, a permanent state of temporary labour status and employer control displays itself in many different ways. In 2013, the OPP undertook a DNA Sweep near Tillsonburg, Ontario. The sweep was undertaken in response to a sexual assault that occurred in the community. A vague description of the suspect was provided and in turn the OPP coerced every migrant worker whether they fitted the description or not to participate in the sweep. The DNA sweep is one of the largest racial profiling cases in Ontario’s history. When it was all done, nearly 100 men ranging from ages in their early twenties to the late sixties were subjected to the sweep. In our interviews with several of the workers, the control of the employers, and fear of losing employment compelled the workers to participate in the DNA sweep.
Comparing the SAWP program to the institution of indentureship or Canada’s own version of apartheid is not an exaggeration. In spite of the tremendous contributions undertaken by migrant workers, the legal structure of the program renders them vulnerable and unable to exert their rights because of the constant fear of being sent home and banned from the program. Whether the architects of the SAWP program intended for migrant workers to be discriminated against, their intentions are irrelvant as the impact means that migrant workers are treated differently as a result of being racialized workers from the Caribbean and Mexico.
Justicia for Migrant Workers is calling for an end to the employer’s control of this program and for changes at both the federal and provincial levels. At the federal level, migrant farm workers should be granted permanent immigration status, something that was granted to European farm workers generations ago. At the provincial level, agricultural workers must be included in all workplace protections and should be accorded the right to overtime, holiday pay and any other rights that the rest of us enjoy.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of Canada, let the 50th anniversary of the farm worker program be a reminder to us all, that for 50 years our sisters, brothers, cousins, fathers, mothers and friends have toiled in our fields under conditions reminiscent of a bygone era. I believe this must change, I hope you do as well and that you will join us in changing the course of history so all members of our community are treated as equals.