Migrant agricultural workers demanding dignity

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Hector Balderos Campos is from Mexico and has been coming to Canada as a migrant agricultural worker for 15 years. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Dignidad Migrante Society, a worker-based non-profit organization devoted to workers helping workers stand up for their rights. Natalia Sudeyko lives in Vancouver and is a volunteer with Dignidad Migrante. Scott Neigh interviews them about what migrant agricultural workers face in Canada and about what their organization is doing in response.

In Canada, we have food to eat because of the labour of migrant workers. Each year, around 60,000 people come to Canada to work under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and the agricultural stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, and that number is growing. They spend three to 11 months per year in Canada, some for five, 10, even 20 years. Though sometimes framed as an extraordinary measure required to meet so-called labour market gaps, migrant workers have been integral to how the agricultural industry in this country has operated for at least five decades.

Despite this essential role, Canada treats migrant agricultural workers very poorly. They do hard work and work long hours, but are paid low wages. They are brought to Canada on closed work permits that tie them to a single employer, which gives employers great power over them. Many face harassment, abuse, unsafe working conditions, isolation, regular violations of minimum employment standards, poor housing conditions, and even instances of physical and sexual assault. If they try to assert their rights or to organize, employers have significant power over sending them home and refusing to hire them back the following year. They pay into national programs like the Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance, but face more restrictions than citizens or permanent residents in accessing benefits, and can face restrictions in their ability to access services like health care. And they are offered no pathway to becoming citizens in this country that so depends on their labour.

The Dignidad Migrante Society has existed in various forms and under various names since around 2007, but it took on its current incarnation a little more than two years ago. The organization is based in Vancouver and much of their organizing work has happened in British Columbia, but they have active members in Ontario and other parts of the country too. Crucially, every member of its board of directors is a migrant worker.

In trying to organize, connecting with workers who live and work on often isolated farms can be a challenge. Word of mouth among migrant workers is important, as is outreach in community and commercial spaces in nearby towns. Over the years, they have built up relationships with workers who return each year, who get in touch after they arrive and may be able to invite Dignidad Migrante to do a farm visit. They also organize events like community dinners.

An important part of the organization's work is training, including workshops to help workers know their rights when it comes to things like taxes, occupational health and safety, employment insurance, and so on, but also others with a more practical focus, like equipment and protective measures for applying pesticides and approaches to avoiding workplace injury.

Crucially, they also do front-line worker-to-worker support -- everything from translation at medical appointments, to peer support in navigating Canadian bureaucracies, to advice and solidarity in standing up to employer abuses. An important principle in their work is that when a worker receives help from the organization, they are expected to help other workers in turn.

The organization does policy advocacy and lobbying as well. And today, with the severe limits on interpersonal contact due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are making greater use of social media like Facebook and YouTube to create and share resources.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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