by SUSAN MANN
On Christmas Day, Hamilton-area broccoli grower Ken Forth says he routinely talks by phone to his seasonal agricultural workers who are back home in their Caribbean counties.
“We’re good people and we have good people working for us,” says Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Management Services (FARMS), the non-profit organization that oversees the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program. Forth made the comments in response to the 46-year old program being lumped in with three other temporary foreign worker programs in a new report from the Metcalf Foundation. The report, released Monday, outlines how temporary foreign workers have fewer effective legal protections than Canadian workers and current government policy is inadequate in preventing the workers from experiencing human rights violations and exploitation while they’re here.
The report, Made In Canada: How the Law Constructs Migrant Workers’ Insecurity, is based on research and interviews done by Fay Faraday, Metcalf innovation fellow and Osgoode Hall Law School adjunct professor.
The Metcalf Foundation is a private family foundation based in Toronto dedicated to, according to its website, advancing innovative approaches to sustainability, equity and creativity.
Forth says he hasn’t read the report. But the seasonal agricultural worker program has more rules and regulations than any temporary worker program “on the planet.” In addition, it requires each country with farm workers coming to Canada to have a government representative here to help workers with any problems.
Unlike the seasonal agricultural worker program, the other temporary worker programs aren’t required to have government agents from the workers’ countries in Canada – although they may have agents here, Forth explains. There’s also a requirement in the seasonal agricultural worker program that “we must have a relationship with that government and with our embassy in that region.” The requirements are established by agreement between the Canadian government and countries supplying workers for “this program only,” he says.
There are less than 30,000 agricultural workers brought in under the seasonal agricultural worker program annually across Canada from Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad/Tobago and the East Caribbean. Under the program, farm employers can only hire seasonal labour from other countries if they can’t find domestic workers to fill vacancies.
In preparing her report, Faraday looked at the experience of low-wage workers who migrate to Ontario under four streams of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program, including the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program. The others are: the Live-in Caregiver program, the Pilot Project for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (National Occupational Classification C & D) and the agricultural stream of the National Occupational Classification C & D pilot.
The report notes the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada has more than tripled in the past decade rising to 300,111 in 2011 from 89,746 in 2000 and most workers are employed as live-in caregivers, agricultural workers and in sectors such as hotels, restaurants, food processing and construction. They are frequently underpaid, overworked and denied basic rights like decent housing and health and safety.
Forth says that’s not the case for the Ontario seasonal agricultural workers under the program who are paid $10.25 hour, the province’s minimum wage. “They’re the highest priced agricultural workers in North America.” He adds that he has to compete in the marketplace with farmers from countries like Mexico, who pay their workers $5 to $8 a day.
In addition, the housing Ontario farmers provide is inspected by the Ministry of Health, he notes.
The report says the Canadian labour force desperately needs additional workers, but the support programming and services that are fundamental to a foreign worker program working efficiently are not in place. The report also lays out how current government policy is inadequate in preventing the exploitation and human rights violations of migrant workers in Canada.
Low-wage migrant workers are brought into Canada on terms that leave them open to exploitation and present barriers to enforcing basic rights to decent work. Since migrant workers don’t have the same legal status and protections as permanent residents they are at higher risk of abuse by employers who take advantage of their vulnerability, Faraday says in a press release.
The introduction of the report’s summary says migrant workers are vulnerable to abuse by recruiters, immigration consultants and employers. Because of their legal, economically and socially marginalized position they face tremendous barriers to enforcing the rights they do have.
Worker advocates, unions, community organizations and academics have for years documented the widespread exploitation of workers and it’s not anecdotal but is endemic and systemic, the summary says.
Forth says “there are other academics who have documented the good points of the program.” Forth explains he’s talked to workers on his farm who say they’re able to afford high school and university tuitions for their children with the wages they earn in Canada. But if they didn’t have their Canadian farming jobs they couldn’t pay the school fees in their home countries.
If people are successful in tearing down the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program, it’s the workers who will lose because they’ll be out of jobs, he notes, adding he doesn’t think they’ll succeed in destroying it.
Faraday recommends in her report that while federal immigration and provincial employment laws are typically developed separately, the federal and provincial governments should look at the systems in an integrated way and all workers should have access to apply to immigrate and to arrive with full status as permanent residents. She also recommends workers have the right to unionize and bargain collectively.
Stan Raper, agricultural worker coordinator for the Untied Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada, couldn’t be reached for comment. BF