Migrant farm workers face never ending precarity and vulnerability

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When Gabriel Allahdua left his home country of St. Lucia in 2012 to become a migrant farm worker in Canada, he split his life in two.

In Saint Lucia were his two daughters -- now 20 and 22 -- who lost their mother in 2005, and lived in separate houses while they attended different schools while he was gone for eight months at a time. 

In Canada, Allahdua had what he saw as his one and only chance to support his daughters, after a hurricane left Saint Lucia devastated in 2010, resulting in a recession and a period of high rates of unemployment.

Growing up, Allahdua thought highly of Canada. He attributes his secondary school education to Canada, having attended a school built by the Canadian government. 

However, the very first night Allahdua spent in Canada, he was corralled from the airport onto a bus with no working heating system. From there, the bus driver mistakenly dropped Allahdua and his colleagues off at the wrong bunkhouse, where they spent the night. It was empty, and also lacked a heating system. It was mid-January. 

"That was my welcome to Canada," he said. "Red flag. Red flag. Red flag."

Allahdua spent four seasons as a migrant farm worker at a tomato farm in Leamington, Ontario, from 2012 to 2015. He is now a permanent resident in Canada, something that is practically unheard of among migrant farm workers. 

When migrant workers come to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), they are given a temporary visa for the duration of their contract. That visa is tied to their specific employer. If they quit or are fired, they lose their visa and must return home. They are offered no pathway to obtaining permanent resident status, and they are the only group of temporary foreign workers for whom there is no prospect of gaining status. 

The only way Allahdua was able to get status was by applying on humanitarian and compassionate grounds; essentially a waiver of the conditions that would normally make an individual inadmissible for status. 

Vasanthi Venkatesh, a law professor at the University of Windsor, said that applying for status on humanitarian and compassionate grounds should not be considered a pathway to gaining permanent resident status, because it's discretionary and subjective and is rarely granted. 

"It's like saying the bank is closed Monday until five, but if the person is nice, they'll let you in for five more minutes to do your work. But the bank is still closed at five. It's not as if you have access to the bank at five," Venkatesh said.

To gain status on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, the adjudicators consider one's ties to Canada, evaluate the best interests of any children involved, and consider what could happen if the request for status is denied. 

In Allahdua's case, he said his family situation presented the grounds for his application. Leaving his children with no parent for eight months every year caused immense stress to their relationship, something he said he is still trying to repair. But, he said he had no other economic options in Saint Lucia. 

For migrant workers, being deported and losing access to the SAWP means they lose their livelihood. 

"Many of them are young with a lot of potential, but they're stuck in this job for years, where they are not able to develop their skills," Venkatesh said. 

Workers are not allowed to register for school or even take English classes while they are working here. If they are forced to return to their home country, they end up in the exact same situation that forced them to seek out the hard physical labour that is farm work in Canada in the first place. 

Beyond lacking the opportunity for growth, though, migrant farm workers' lack of permanent resident status means they have little to no workers' rights. Their visa is tied to their specific employer. If the employer decides they should be fired, for whatever reason, they will be deported as a result, unable to seek justice in Canada from their home country. 

Medical repatriation, for instance, is an accepted employer practice, said Venkatesh, who is also a volunteer organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers. Workers who are sick or injured are sent home rather than receiving the care they need here and returning to work when they are healed, even though workers do have access to provincial health care for the duration of their visa.  

The fear of deportation was constantly looming, said Allahdua. He asserts that employers use that fear to drive workers to produce more. At the farm he worked at in Leamington, Allahdua said the employer would post charts outlining each workers' productivity for the week. You didn't want to be at the bottom, he said, because the implication was that the employer could send you home and replace you with somebody who would work harder. 

Allahdua said speaking out for one's rights as a migrant worker is incredibly risky. He brought up the migrant workers who have been sharing videos and photos of their living conditions by leaking them. 

"They have to leak information. They cannot speak about it. They're risking being sent home and being deported."    

In June, two migrant farm workers in British Columbia were repatriated to Mexico after meeting with two migrant worker activists. The employer said the workers had broken the rules of the farm by having visitors (a rule some employers have enacted during the pandemic), and had them sign a statement to that effect.  

Permanent resident status would allow workers to leave their employer if they are being treated poorly, said Allahdua and Venkatesh. It would allow them access to social safety nets like CPP and EI -- programs that migrant workers pay into while they are here but are unable to ever collect. And, it would allow them to bring their children with them.

Venkatesh said that by depriving migrant farm workers of the choice to apply for status, Canada ensures that its farms can continue to profit via the exploitation of migrant labour. 

Allahdua said that Canada has been built by migrant labour, and sees the SAWP as a continuation of an exploitative pattern. "From the Chinese railroad workers [to now], Canada has been using unjust labour laws, unjust immigration laws, to keep workers vulnerable and precarious."

Being granted permanent resident status upon arrival would mean more than just the ability to live in Canada, said Allahdua, but it really means the ability to have some autonomy over one's work, a legitimate pathway to fight for one's rights, a way for migrants to reunite with their families, and to find some stability in life. 

Many of the issues that Allahdua faced as a migrant worker, and that successfully made the case for him to be granted permanent resident status on humanitarian grounds, are not unique to his experience. 

A current migrant farm worker in Bradford, Ontario, agreed to speak with rabble.ca on the condition of anonymity. If his name and/or the name of his employer were published, he feared he could lose his job and be deported. 

This worker has been coming to Canada through the SAWP for 10 years and has worked on three different farms. 

The biggest hardship of being a migrant worker, he said, is leaving his wife and five children for six months at a time every year. His children range in age from three to 18 years old. 

"Sometimes I just feel like staying home with my family and putting all my trust in God [that things will be okay]. On the other hand, there's bills to pay," he said. 

The worker sees his time here as a necessary sacrifice. Unemployment in his home country of Saint Vincent is high, and to provide for his family, he needs this job. 

Deon Castello, a PhD researcher focusing on the impacts of the SAWP, said it's common for families to be affected when workers are in Canada for many months at a time every year. 

Talking about the impact of being away from his two daughters makes Allahdua emotional. 

"Being in the program, my children see me as a stranger. I've missed so much of their lives. When I left, when I first came in 2012, they were preteens and I saw them as children. Now they come join me, they are adults. Rebonding with them is a real challenge. I've missed out on so much and they hold that against me. It can be repaired but it's not an easy thing." 

His two daughters have now joined him in Canada, he said, and all three of them are working as they find their footing in their new life here. Allahdua is currently working delivering appliances, and is working on his licence to become a financial advisor. 

"[In Canada], without status, you have nothing. With status, you have everything," said Venkatesh. 

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

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