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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

14 reforms urgently needed to combat exploitation of migrant farm workers in Canada: report

UFCW Canada calls "for 14 legislative and regulatory reforms to a system that currently leaves migrant agricultural workers more vulnerable than Canadian workers to exploitation, health risks, and employer reprisal."

Screenshot from the cover of the UFCW report

The United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW Canada) released a report Monday, August 10, that calls "for 14 legislative and regulatory reforms to a system that currently leaves migrant agricultural workers more vulnerable than Canadian workers to exploitation, health risks, and employer reprisal."

Entitled The Status of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada, 2020 the report makes for disturbing reading that details decades long issues of exploitation and abuse. The report notes:

Seasonal work by migrant workers now accounts for half of Canada’s paid agricultural workforce. The workers arrive from Mexico or one of the other 11 participating Caribbean countries.
Canada has seen a continuous expansion of the migrant and temporary foreign workforce incorporate agriculture under federal programs that deliver migrant workers to employers, and then essentially abandon them to fend for themselves. In 2012 the ESDC ( Employment and Services Development Canada) issued 39,700 permits for migrant farmworkers. In 2019 that number had risen to 72,000
65% of these migrant farmworkers are subject to the terms and conditions of the SAWP ( Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program) program, which is negotiated between the participating governments. However, the terms and conditions of employment, as well as other workplace rights and entitlements for agricultural workers, are subject to provincial workplace legislation.
Yet, the labour and workplace rights of agricultural workers are far too often expressly excluded, making migrant agricultural workers more vulnerable than the general Canadian workforce, as their legal rights and entitlements are fewer. As a result, Canada’s migrant agricultural workers work in conditions where exploitation and abuse are common. This is also fueled by the fact that workers who are hired through the SAWP and TFW (Temporary Foreign Workers) are only allowed to work for the specific employer who hired them. Their “closed” work permit and the exclusion from collective bargaining rights of agricultural workers in Ontario, where about 40% of temporary migrant agricultural workers are employed, puts these workers in a vulnerable position where the employer has all the power over the employee.

This results in a situation where "Temporary Foreign Workers experience higher rates of wage theft and workplace abuse" and "are also dependent on the moods of their employers to be able to stay in Canada."

While the UFCW asserts that "Canada does not need a robust temporary foreign worker program. Canada desperately needs a more inclusive, protective, and healthy immigration system" there are 14 immediate reforms that they are demanding:

Federal reforms urgently needed:
1. Make union representation a necessary condition of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, as the best practical measure in providing proper representation and protection to Canada’s most precarious and vulnerable worker population;
2. End employer-specific work permits and replace them with open work permits, or at least, occupation-specific work permits;
3. Expand the Agri-food Pilot program to allow for an additional 5,000 permanent residency opportunities, per year, dedicated to the primary agricultural stream;
4. Establish a tripartite sector council dedicated to reducing Canada’s over-reliance on Temporary Foreign Workers by collaborating on innovative active labour market policy options;
5. Establish a federal tribunal to properly allow for the review and appeal of repatriation decisions in advance of TFWs being sent home by employers;
6. Provide SAWP and TFWP workers with access to Canada’s Employment Insurance Program which they have paid into since 1966;
7. Sign the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1990.
Provincial reforms urgently needed:
1. Repeal Ontario’s Agricultural Employees Protection Act. The Ontario Labour Relations Act must be amended to include agricultural workers, or the Agricultural Labour Relations Act should be revived to truly respect the collective bargaining rights of agricultural workers;
2. Bill 26 must be repealed in Alberta; all agricultural workers should be fully included in Alberta’s Labour Code without exception;
3. Bill 8 must be repealed in Quebec; all agricultural workers should be fully included in Quebec’s Labour Code without exception;
4. Institute and properly enforce the Manitoba model in all provinces with respect to regulating and penalizing offshore recruiters of foreign workers;
5. Establish significant fines and/or jail sentences for domestic recruiters and temporary work agencies who are found to exploit migrant workers;
6. Eliminate piece rate and set quotas as they facilitate labour exploitation and create physical and mental issues that impact the wellbeing of migrant workers.
7. Ban the practice of housing workers above or adjacent to greenhouses in recognition of the apparent dangers associated with living in buildings housing chemicals, fertilizers, boilers, industrial fans and/or heaters.

In a press release accompanying the report Paul Meinema, the national president of UFCW Canada says:

Every year, tens of thousands of migrant agricultural workers come here and work hard to provide food for Canadian families. And what many of these hard-working people get in exchange are working and living conditions that most Canadians would fine appalling.The federal and provincial governments must act to end the systemic discrimination that restricts the rights and protections for migrant workers and leaves them invisible, afraid, and powerless to raise concerns about their housing and workplace conditions.
Governments must act to protect these workers, who contribute so much and are forced to suffer in silence. It is a matter of justice and human rights in the face of a current system that perpetuates global exploitation and abuse and punishes those who are so vital to Canada’s food security.

1 comment

1 Comment

becky borthwick
becky borthwick
Aug 29, 2020

Sadly, this article says nothing of the sexual, physical and mental abuse some of the people experience. Vulnerable to threats of sent home and 'blacklisted', this a terrify and silent problem that needs to be addressed.

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