NY Times slams Canada’s migrant farm worker scheme

Photo of Erika Zavala harvesting carrots on an organic farm in Cawston, British Columbia. Photo Credit Ruth Fremson of the NY Times.

Erika Zavala, 32, a seasonal worker from Mexico, weeding rows of plants in the organic carrot farm where she works near Cawston, British Columbia. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Migrant farm workers from BC and Ontario asserted their strength by sharing their struggles with an international audience. Today’s New York Times article by Dan Levin explains how Canada’s migrant farm worker scheme invites dangerous, unhealthy and exploitative conditions for migrant farm workers by its very design.

“This program is a form of apartheid,” said Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers, a labor rights organization based in Ontario.

“Migrant workers are employed and live under a different set of legal rights than Canadians,” Mr. Ramsaroop added. “The very existence of temporary foreign worker programs enables the Canadian government to deny basic freedoms and protections as a result of their immigration status.”

 

Although they aren’t mentioned in the article, hats off to our friends at Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (especially Amy Cohen) for helping bring this piece to light.

This criticism by international media — which is underpinned by decades of research and advocacy — shows that justifications for Canada’s migrant farm worker program are wearing thin in the public eye.

What’s missing in media coverage of the new Auditor General report on the TFWP

Photo of Auditor General Michael Ferguson by Adrian Wyld, Canadian Press.

Michael Ferguson, Auditor General. Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press: http://bit.ly/2qgk5U1

On May 16th, Michael Ferguson, the Canadian Auditor General, released a new report on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Much of the media coverage on the report has missed some key points. Some coverage has also risked pitting migrant workers against unemployed and marginalized residents of Canada, particularly Indigenous peoples.

To be clear, migrant workers do not lower wages or steal jobs. Inadequate wages, unemployment and a lack of employment equity occur because of specific state and capitalist policy choices. The absence of standards or enforcement is a policy choice, too. In the case of low-wage streams of the TFWP, governments create policies that allow capitalists (aka employers) to access racialized, unfree and deportable workers from the Majority World. Consequently, workers have weak workplace bargaining power and can’t easily demand better wages and working conditions.

In response to the report and mainstream media coverage, we suggest the following points and questions :

  • Growth of agricultural streams of the TFWP: While the number of migrant workers in other streams has decreased in recent years, agricultural migrant workers have skyrocketed
    • e.g. in 2014, there were 47,477 migrant worker positions approved in Primary Agriculture — this is a rough proxy for the number of migrant farm workers. In 2015, there were 53,303 positions approved.
  • Xenophobia: Media articles that frame migrant workers as stealing jobs from Canadians are dangerous, inaccurate and irresponsible. Worldwide, we have witnessed the alarming effects of fomenting xenophobic sentiment, and particularly in the wake of Brexit and the Trump election.
  • Decrease in # of ‘low-skilled’ migrant workers: The report cites a massive decrease in the number of ‘low-skilled’ workers following Conservative Party reforms to the TFWP.
    • What happened to these people? How many were deported, repatriated, are still here, transitioned to permanent residency, sought other forms of immigration status ie student, other occupation, refugee status, etc.?
  • The role of CIC and CBSA: The report only examines Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), but neglects to consider the role of Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Canada Border Services Agency, both of which play a key role in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
  • Agricultural exceptionalism: There is no discussion on why there has not been any greater scrutiny of the agriculture sector.
  • Workers are people: The report treats migrants as mere economic units, rather than human beings with individual and collective rights.
  • Recruiters: The report speaks to employment recruitment efforts without examining the role of third party recruitment agencies in bringing migrant workers.
  • Precaritization of jobs: The report provides commentary about the hiring of marginalized people without considering broader trends in the precaritization of employment (i.e. insecure, low-wage, unprotected and informal jobs with limited or no benefits)
  • Timing and industry: The report does not examine the time spent by migrant workers in Canada. Specifically, the report examines Labour Market Impact Assessment approval without examining the labour attachment of these TFW’s to the industries they worked in.
  • Four-and-Four: How did the Four-in-and-Four-Out Rule impact migrant workers in low-skill streams of the TFWP? How many were forced to return to their countries of origin, despite the eventual rescinding of this rule?
  • EI: For those workers who collected EI, how many were able to access special or regular benefits? How many claimed benefits as a result of termination, abuse or job conflict?
    • Members of the public and advocacy groups have requested EI data on the TFWP for years, only to be told that a breakdown does not exist. The report shows it does exist.
  • “Risk-based approach”: The report discusses the use of a “risk-based approach” to workplace inspections. What does this look like, how was it developed and how will it be implemented?
  • Fed-provincial: With respect to federal-provincial agreements on the TFWP, only one province has signed this with the federal government. Migrant workers must be actively included as part of deliberating on these agreements.
  • Inspections: the numbers of inspections are shocking — 4,900 paper inspections and 173 onsite inspections, only 13 of which have been completed.
  • Reprisals: What steps will the federal and provincial governments take to protect workers who are terminated or lose jobs because they assisted with investigations?
  • Exploitation by design: Extreme cases of abuse are of course a problem, but the Auditor General doesn’t comment on how the Temporary Foreign Worker Program invites exploitation by design because of the fundamental structure of the program — driven by employers, with workers tied to their employer.
  • Performance measurement strategy: The report states that ESDC has now developed a “performance measurement strategy” to assess the impact of the TFWP on the Canadian labour market.
    • What are the metrics used for this measurement? Will this strategy ensure the rights of all workers are upheld, especially those of migrant workers?

Update on fire fundraiser

fire1Spring has arrived, and many of our brothers and sisters on the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program are returning to southern Ontario. We thought we would take this opportunity to provide an update on a story that happened at the tail end of last year’s season.

On the morning of July 29, 2016, 32 migrant farmworkers from Jamaica lost all their belongings when a fire destroyed their bunkhouse in Mount Pleasant, Ontario. All they were left with were the clothes on their backs.

Justice for Migrant Workers made repeated trips to Mount Pleasant to meet with those who were affected by the fire and to assess the situation. Some of the workers were preparing a shipment of items to send back home to family in Jamaica. However the fire destroyed everything. Tools, passports, and other items were all lost. Some workers also reported that they lost their savings, as they didn’t have bank accounts in Canada and kept all their money in the bunkhouse.

A GoFundMe page was started, and donations also poured in from the community. The total amount raised for our brothers in Brantford reached $21,984. Just over half that amount was raised online, while a very special donation of $10,000 was received from the Jesuit Refugee and Migrant Service.

fire2In October 2016, just before the workers returned home at the end of the season, two Justicia volunteers traveled to Brantford and provided each of the 32 workers with cheques for $687. The gratitude was overwhelming, and important bonds were built which will hopefully last through many seasons to come.

An additional victory was the announcement that the Jamaican consulate would waive all fees associated with replacing the passports. This came after steadfast pressure from Justicia and other groups standing in solidarity with the workers.

Next steps

Migrant farmworkers are employed in one of the most marginalized and oppressed sectors of Canadian society. The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized their work as being some of the most dangerous there is. As migrants they face additional risks due to their precarious status in Canada, the fact that they’re not permitted to unionize, and their social isolation. Yet despite this they work hard to put Ontario produce on the plates of families across our province and beyond, typically without ever receiving adequate recognition or gratitude.

We were proud to have enabled community assistance in this situation, and we encourage everyone to continue with support and advocacy throughout 2017.

Press Release: Angry migrant workers respond to TFW review by descending on Cambridge MP’s office

Press Release: Angry migrant workers respond to TFW review by descending on Cambridge MP’s office.
What: Delegation to Constituency office of Bryan May

Where: 534 Hespeler Road, Cambridge

When: September 20, 3:45 pm.

Who: Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW) is a grassroots advocacy group based in Toronto, Leamington and Mexico City. Composed of migrant workers and allies, we fight for improved rights and protections for workers in Canada’s various labour-migration programs including the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

Cambridge, September 20, 2016. Activist group J4MW is organizing an angry delegation to Bryan May’s constituency office today to respond to the deeply flawed Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) review. Members of J4MW will arrive at 3:45pm pm at May’s office which is located at 543 Hespeler Road Unit A4 in Cambridge, Ontario.

Bryan May served as Chair of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills, Social Development and Persons with Disabilities (HUMA), the committee that oversaw the TFW report.

“The report provides only band-aid solutions to a critical crisis facing our communities. We need to alleviate this crisis by granting permanent residency status for migrant workers,” says Claudia Espinoza, an organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW).

Justicia for Migrant workers is currently undertaking a 30-day caravan across Ontario to highlight the exploitative conditions faced by migrants working predominantly in agriculture. Today the caravan is in Cambridge with the delegation to May’s office and later this evening visiting with local allies in the Kitchener area.

“The Liberals provided a half-baked and extremely vague report that leaves many questions unanswered,” continues Espinoza. “We will continue to mobilize and to organize with migrant workers and their allies toward building a society where migrants are accorded dignity and humanity and we end the apartheid conditions that exists across Canada.”

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) is a labour-migration program that brings tens of thousands of Caribbean and Mexican workers annually to toil in fields across Canada. Migrant workers who arrive under this program face many challenges working in Canada, including: having work permits tied to a single employer; being under constant threat of deportation by employers; and ineligibility for permanent residency regardless of how many years they have worked in Canada. See more information at the Harvesting Freedom Caravan website http://www.harvestingfreedom.org

The call for permanent immigration status on landing for migrant workers is the joint position of all major migrant worker groups in Canada, see http://www.migrantrights.ca

Media contact: Tzazna Miranda, 647 618 5325

Sep 17-19 in Guelph and Waterloo, honouring Dr. Kerry Preibisch

We’re very excited for our upcoming leg of the caravan in Guelph and Waterloo.

harvesting-freedom-sept-17Saturday, Sept 17 (Guelph)
Film screening of Migrant Dreams. 7-9pm in Room 102, Rozanski Hall, University of Guelph. Director Min Sook Lee, Nandita Sharma and members of the caravan will join in a community panel/Q&A, moderated by Janet McLaughlin, following the screening. RSVP on the Facebook event. If you have accessibility needs, please contact Brad (organizational@opirgguelph.org). Please click here for full-size version of the film-screening poster.

 

 

Sunday, Sept 18 (Guelph)

The Caravan will honour the life and work of Professor Kerry Preibisch at a special academic forum in Guelph.

Monday, Sept 19 (Guelph)

We will pay a community visit to the WSIB office at 9am to demand justice for injured migrant farmworkers! They are located at 100 Stone Road West, Guelph.

Monday, Sept 19 (Waterloo)
Harvesting Change: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. Hosted by the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University, and the International Migration Research Centre.

Morning keynote:

Academic Panel:

[Lunch]

Community Panel:

Click on this event page for more details and registration. REGISTRATION IS REQUIRED.

poster

 

 

“It feels like the government just sells you out to a white man.”

“It feels like the government just sells you out to a white man.” – Terron Baptiste, September 9, 2016.

Terron Baptiste, a 30 year-old Trinidadian man in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, had his contract terminated at the farm he worked because he refused to do unsafe work that had previously injured him. Although farm workers in Ontario are legally entitled to refuse unsafe work, Terron’s story illustrates the tremendous gap between migrant workers’ rights on paper and in practice.

Terron’s employer routinely cut the hours of workers who he deemed troublemakers in order to bully them into returning back home. Terron described treatment at his work place as “feeling like slavery” and that he and the others were routinely treated “worse than an animals”, being routinely punished for needing water or being injured, given 15-minute lunches and having wages stolen for unexplained reasons.

Photographs courtesy of Christopher Katsarov Luna