A Southern Ontario farm. via.
Because Canadian citizens are increasingly unwilling to work tough agricultural jobs a la Stompin’ Tom’s “Tillsonburg”, the seasonal agricultural sector in Canada depends on migrant workers to hit the fields and greenhouses for harvest. Every year when the seasons are right, workers are recruited from South America, the Caribbean, The Philippines, Thailand, and Mexico, to work on farms that boast Canadian minimum wage along with room and board. For however long it takes, often seven or eight months of 60–70 hour work weeks, seasonal workers are used to harvest tobacco, cucumbers, ginseng, and whatever else grows inches from the ground and breaks a back to pick.
Over 25,000 migrants arrive in Canada, mostly in Southern Ontario, every year for this type of work, yet they remain largely invisible to their surrounding communities and the broader provincial and national purview that appreciates cheap produce.
Last year, the fate of ten Peruvian men briefly brought foreign workers into the national news cycle when a van carrying them from a job at a chicken farm collided with a truck just outside of Waterloo, ON. Then Premier Dalton McGuinty expressed his condolences, the men’s friends erected makeshift memorials and the community asked questions, but the story faded within weeks—without a coroner’s inquest.
Since 1996, over 50 migrant workers in Ontario have been killed in workplace related incidents. And while the provincial government has established mandatory inquiries into workplace fatalities within the construction and mining industries, there has never been a single coroner’s inquest into the death of a migrant farm worker.
Chris Ramsaroop is an organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers, a non-profit organization based in Toronto that aims to promote the rights of migrant workers in Canada. He’s currently involved in a hearing with Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal advocating on behalf of Ned Peart, a Jamaican man who was killed in 2002 when he was crushed on a tobacco farm near Brantford. Justicia is arguing that migrant workers should be given the respect of a coroner’s inquest—just as resident Canadians do if they end up killed in the workplace—and that migrant workers shouldn’t be made to feel so utterly replaceable as a result. Their final hearing is on June 28th, and if Justicia and Peart’s case is successful, the rewarded inquest will be the first of its kind in Canada.
I got in touch with Chris to get his perspective on this case, and the issues surrounding Canadian migrant workers in general.
“Guys work 18-20 hour shifts because there are no minimum standards in agriculture. There are no regulations. There are no laws for housing migrant agricultural employees and there is no jurisdiction. They are living in cramped quarters, aren’t paid their proper wages and depending on the size of the farm, they don’t have access to health and safety committees…”
At a talk held at Ryerson University, hosted by Sustain Ontario, Chris described the conditions he encountered when he visited a “leading organic facility in Southern Ontario” where a worker had recently broken his back and was being sent home…
“So we get there. Workers are living there 7 to 8 months a year and I’m not lying to you, there’s no bathrooms. There’s port-a-potties. The men do not have stoves, they have hot plates. They have no heating for their trailers. I didn’t see their shower facilities, I wouldn’t want to see them. And they’re confined to these very, very small quarters… for many people like myself it’s no coincidence that you have racialized labour coming from Mexico and the Caribbean to work in these fields. We’re continuing the condition of slavery and indenture-ship. We’ve decided to call it something else but that is exactly what’s going on here.”
In our conversation Chris went on to explain that workers aren’t provided with adequate training or WHMIS information (which is vital when working with as many pesticides as farmers do) and aren’t informed of their few rights. He noted that workers get sent home when they are injured—or in some cases, as recent amputees—and that there is no accessible mechanism in place in Canada or in their home countries through which they can voice their concerns.
In these conditions, you’d expect their minimum wage would at least be tax-free… but no. Absurdly, although they aren’t eligible to go on it, migrant workers pay millions into E.I. “They are always on the margins of society,” says Ramsaroop, “even though they pay into E.I. they can’t receive E.I. because they have to return to their home country…”
While it would make sense that Canada, with such a hardline stance on human rights would be expanding benefits to migrant workers, last December, Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, under the banner of the Conservatives great Economic Action Plan, removed one of the only rights they were entitled to, which was to receive a fraction of their minimum wage when they returned home to care for a newborn child.
I asked Janet Dench, Executive Director at the Canadian Council for Refugees, about the policies that perpetuate this systemic abuse of worker’s rights and learned that a lot of it is based on simply being labelled as ‘temporary’ or ‘seasonal.’
“Agricultural workers obviously aren’t temporary if you’re using them year after year after year. They’re temporary in the sense that it’s only part of the year but it’s permanent… they’re coming back year after year because there aren’t Canadians willing to take those jobs. So everything is good and we can keep bringing in cheap workers from abroad.” Imagine the backlash if the federal government decided to paint fisherman in Newfoundland with the same seasonal/temporary brush and gave them the shaft that migrant workers are getting?
Dench said the second issue is that migrant workers’ rights fall between the cracks of federal and provincial jurisdictions. “Bringing [migrant workers] into Canada is done by the federal government and what we’ve been seeing is issues for temporary foreign workers fall between the cracks of federal immigration policies and provincial labour laws.”
The main issue that Ramsaroop and Dench came back to was, that in the case of migrant farm workers, there seems to be a kind of rural “Stop Snitching” mentality. Workers are made to feel that if they complain, they’ll be fired. They are bound to one employer, with no union or labour board to turn to, so their choice is either to keep their head down and take it or get kicked out of the country forever. As Dench summed up, “if you’ve been shown to be a trouble maker and have been denouncing abuses then you’re probably not coming back next year.”
John Steinbeck popularized the plight of the American migrant worker in the 1930’s in his The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men. They are narratives of tough people, men and women, travelling to find work in the fields in an effort to make ends meet for themselves and their families. The struggles are tragic yet romantic, set against the backdrop of sunsets and frontier California. The plight of the migrant worker in Canada reflects none of Steinbeck’s romance, and all of its degradation.
So next time you see one of those “Farmers Feed Cities!” stickers on the back of a station wagon or on the fridge of your urban, organic-only neighbour—you should definitely still think of the farmer—but also remember the migrant worker who is busting their ass to feed you.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @ddner
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