Looking abroad for local labour

Beamsville church welcomes temporary foreign workers into its community

By Jim Algie

For long-standing members of St. Alban’s Anglican Church in Beamsville, their outreach to temporary agricultural workers has meant “new life for the church,” Rev. Javier Arias said in a recent interview.

“We are giving some kind of service and support to the guys, but they are bringing to us a new life, you know, new blood,” he said. A native Spanish speaker of Colombian origin, Arias is a former Roman Catholic priest who joined the Anglican Church of Canada eight years ago.

Appointed rector at St. Alban’s four years ago, he responded quickly to the presence on nearby farms of temporary foreign workers, many from Spanish-speaking regions of Mexico and Central America.

“We’re providing a place where they are at home. One of the biggest things here is the isolation,” Arias said of the agricultural workers’ lifestyles. They often live in relatively low-cost employer-provided housing. St. Alban’s Sunday outreach includes worship in Spanish, a medical clinic staffed by volunteer physicians who saw 200 workers last year, English classes, meals and winter clothing.

“Usually there are between 100 and 120 people. We see maybe 600 workers during the season, so we’re serving more than 2,000 meals,” Arias said. Parishioners, including foreign workers themselves, have helped repair literally hundreds of donated bicycles for use by farm workers.

An older group of about 95 families, St. Alban’s English-speaking congregation “is working hard to support and to open the doors for the Mexican and Spanish people,” Arias said.

greenhouse tomatoes
    TreeofLife99/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

He is aware of recent controversy about working conditions and wages for farm workers in area greenhouses and fields. In 2016, the House of Commons’ standing committee on human resources, skills and social development heard evidence from workers’ advocacy groups and labour organizations that these individuals are vulnerable to employers because of arbitrary repatriation in cases of illness or injury.

Recent changes to Canada’s temporary foreign workers programs for agriculture fail to address key concerns of workers’ advocates, said Chris Ramsaroop of the Toronto- and Vancouver-based group Justicia for Migrant Workers.

An organizer with the all-volunteer non-profit group that represented workers’ interests during House of Commons committee hearings on the 50-year-old temporary foreign worker program, Ramsaroop described recent changes as “window dressing.”

The changes leave gaps in health-care coverage and require temporary foreign workers to continue paying employment insurance premiums for benefits that they will never receive, he said in an interview from Toronto.

Health-insurance coverage problems vary between people with an eight-month seasonal work permit and people with longer-term contracts, who often work in greenhouse or mushroom operations. For eight-month permit holders, health-care coverage ends with the permit.

But “if you’re injured or sick, your injuries don’t end,” Ramsaroop said.

For workers with 12-month work permits, health-care coverage is subject to a three-month waiting period that also applies to a subsequently renewed contract. Workers are left with a six-month coverage gap during 24 months of work.

Ramsaroop is also aware of recruiters operating in Canada who claim fees from workers that reduce their take-home pay, he said.

Justicia for Migrant Workers seeks improvements to existing temporary foreign worker programs.

“If we abolish the programs, we’re calling for workers to be unemployed in their home countries,” he said. “We believe that the workers have skills that they bring to Canada and these skills need to be respected.”

Beamsville’s Arias tends to steer clear of foreign worker politics. Certainly, some of the youthful crowds of men, who range between 23 and 50 years of age and who participate in parish life during the crop year, come with grievances. But they also appreciate the income that seasonal work provides, the reverend said.

They welcome a recent increase in wages because of changes in Ontario’s minimum wage, Arias said. While some of Arias’s Spanish-speaking parishioners complain about their Canadian employers, others voice praises.

“Sometimes they say there are too many hours; they work 12- or 14-hour (days). Sometimes they say, if you work on holidays, you don’t get paid (extra) as holidays,” Arias said.

Even so, wages from temporary agricultural work in Canada help to support workers’ families in economies where the Canadian dollar goes much further that it does here, he said. BF

Post new comment

4 + 3 =