The plight of farm workers in Canada

Migrant workers harvest corn. Photo: Bob Nichols/U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Farm work is hard work!

The days are long, and the physical work can be heavy and exhausting. Often, particularly on smaller family farms, the monetary rewards are nowhere near what a regular urban salary provides.

There are lots of reasons why the family farm has been disappearing over the past several decades. (Check out some of my previous columns for details about the issue of land concentration.)

Suffice to say, that for many reasons, among them the loss of family farmers and the ever-increasing numbers of factory farms, Canadian agricultural production just wouldn't happen without farm workers.

And while the majority of those farm workers are domestic, there are ever-increasing numbers of foreign migrant workers. Many come to work on labour intensive agricultural operations that produce fruit and vegetables in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia. In fact, 33 per cent of vegetable and fruit farm workers are foreign workers. Others come to work on cattle operations and in large slaughterhouses in southern Alberta or on large grain farms or ranches in Saskatchewan. Every year there is an increasing shortage of farm labour. In 2014 there were 60,000 positions that went unfilled, and it is estimated that by 2025 the labour gap will be more than 114,000.

More than 50,000 farm workers travel to Canada annually to work, either through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) or the Temporary Agricultural Workers Program (TAWP). Use of migrant labourers has long helped to reduce the costs of agricultural production here in Canada. But it comes at a very high cost to the migrant labourers and their families. A recent book reveals the impact of working conditions in Alberta on both domestic and foreign farm workers, Farmworkers in Western Canada: Injustices and Activism.

Migrant farm workers enter Canada legally to work for a season or for several months' duration. This seasonal work can become more or less stable with many workers returning every year. The wages, albeit low by Canadian standards, are coveted and very important to workers' families back home in the Caribbean, Mexico or other countries in Latin America.

But are we taking care of these workers? Is it right that our food is actually being subsidized by migrant workers?

Of all Canadian workers, these migrant workers are among the most vulnerable and the most exploited. They have few labour rights -- in fact, regulations governing the right to unionize, occupational health and safety, workers compensation, health care, decent housing, and minimum pay rates are, in most cases, virtually non-existent.

We hear stories of sick or injured workers, accidents and loss of life, at least a couple of times every growing season.

And though the workers who come to Canada under SAWP pay into employment insurance, they have no legal right to the benefits should they be injured, become ill or lose their jobs for one reason or another. EI premiums are automatically deducted from their pay -- a whopping $21 million that is paid by the worker and the employer annually -- without right to the benefit.

The lack of rules to protect these workers means that most are careful not to complain, even in the face of very dangerous situations. Complaints or reports of unfair practices or dangerous work are one quick way to lose your job -- and that means a quick return flight home -- and likely being blacklisted for future jobs.

For more than 30 years, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have been working to represent agricultural workers. The UFCW and the Agriculture Workers Alliance, an association which represents more than 13,000 farm workers, are lobbying hard for policy changes at both federal and provincial levels. There are many, many issues that need to be resolved. In a 2015 report entitled "The Status of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada," the UFCW and the Agriculture Workers Alliance emphasized 19 key recommendations. A few issues, such as the quality of housing, are being reviewed in some provinces, but most are still outstanding.

Included below are excerpts of some of the recommendations, attesting to the depth of these ongoing problems:

  • Provide a transparent, impartial process of appeal available to all workers before any decision to repatriate is made
  • Enforce the provisions of the SAWP and the TFWP to ensure that workers in these programs are paid at least as much as the provincial seasonal average wage rate.
  • Create national standards for the provinces to accredit, monitor and discipline if necessary both domestic and offshore recruiters of foreign workers.
  • Inspect all workers' housing prior to and following their occupancy. Frequent and random inspections should also be mandated and occur regularly throughout the season. Employers who are found to be in non-compliance with standards for adequate housing should be terminated from the SAWP. Immediately ban the practice of housing workers above or adjacent to greenhouses in recognition of the obvious dangers associated with living in buildings housing chemicals, fertilizers, boilers, industrial fans and/or heaters. These conditions should also apply to housing rented to TFWs by employers.
  • Make it mandatory that all written materials, instructions and signage -- particularly regarding workplace health and safety issues and chemical/pesticides use and application -- be provided in English, French, Spanish, Thai, Punjabi and other native languages as necessary. In addition, an orientation on employment standards, and health and safety legislation should be conducted for migrant and temporary workers in their native language before they start their employment.
  • Immediately terminate from the SAWP and TFWP any employer found to be holding the personal documents, particularly passports and health cards, of migrant workers.
  • If an employer is removed from SAWP for violating the agreement, including unfair labour practices such as blacklisting a worker, the employer should be banned from participating in any other federal or provincial foreign temporary worker program.
  • Ensure that workers are given a free medical exam before they return to their home country, to confirm they are healthy and free from workplace illness or injury.
  • Canada must not wait any longer to sign the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which has been adopted by the United Nationals General Assembly.
  • Migrant agriculture workers should be given a pathway to permanent residence in every province under the provincial nominee programs.
  • SAWP workers should gain full access to the employment insurance program that they have paid into since 1966, and the barriers for access to special benefits, created in 2012, should be removed.

As we head into another growing season, we should be asking ourselves how sustainable our agricultural system is generally, but in particular, how fair it is given the current treatment of farm workers. With looming labour shortages, the numbers of foreign farm workers will increase sharply in just a few years. Isn't it high time we ensured that these workers are protected under labour legislation so that abuses of their labour, their health, and their precarious financial situation are against the law?

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Bob Nichols/U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

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