BY: KABRENA ROBINSON
Every year in Ontario, migrant workers from mostly Mexico and the Caribbean, venture into Canada to work with the hopes of obtaining a better life for themselves and their families back home.
These diligent men and women come into Canada to grow and harvest fresh crops for our consumption, take care of our children and elderly and work on construction sites. What they earn in return, is a system that barely caters to their well-being, working and living under conditions that most Canadians would find undesirable; Meager wages for workdays that sometimes go up to fifteen hours, deplorable and crowded living conditions, limited health benefits and strict contracts that bound them to one employer.
This appalling practice is taking place today, in our very own “liberal and welcoming cultural mosaic”, Canada.
Migrant workers in agriculture, work under two main programs. The Temporary Agricultural Program that lasts for up to two years and the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) that goes for a period of three-eight months.
SAWP operates in numerous provinces across Canada with 90% of workers in mostly southern Ontario.
The working conditions on some farms are most times unsafe and unpleasant, due to ineffective Ontario laws around migrant worker’s conditions. There are no incentives for employers to follow any regulation laws around living and working conditions for migrant workers, this gives way to unjust practices.
Franklyn Bandon, forty-two, a migrant worker from rural Jamaica has been coming to Canada since 2012 working on a peach farm in Niagara. He says most migrant workers who come to Canada don’t really have a choice but to deal with the substandard conditions they work under.
“Most of us are scared to even speak up about how unfair the system is because we might get fired and sent home and then we wouldn’t be able to provide for our families,” he says.
“We have to work really long hours and we barely get paid fairly but for most of us, it is better than a life of poverty back home.”
For the government to take action, the worker has to file a complaint with the ministry. This hardly ever happens because these workers are at risk of losing their jobs and being deported. They are also not allowed by law to unionize.
This system of exploitation also facilitates a cruel and inhumane practice known as “medical repatriation”. Workers who are injured on the job are deemed as being of no productive use to their employer and are often deported without receiving medical assistance. The Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that over 1,000 migrant farm workers have been medically repatriated since 2001.
In 2016, Jamaican migrant worker Sheldon McKenzie, 39, suffered a severe head injury on a farm in Ontario. His employer made every effort to have him deported instead of giving him the medical attention he needed. McKenzie later died in an Ontario hospital awaiting a humanitarian visa that would keep him in Canada for medical purposes. His body returned to his two teenage daughters and wife in Jamaica.
The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change is one of the groups across Canada that provides legal assistance and advocates for migrant worker rights in instances like these. The organization is a coalition made up of migrant rights organizations with activists, lawyers, and union and community workers.
Sharmeen Khan, coordinator of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change says that the coalition works by advocating and making demands to the government to ensure that migrant workers obtain the same labor rights as any other working Canadian.
“One of our biggest campaigns is that we are demanding that migrant workers are permitted status upon arrival,” she says
Most migrant workers come into Canada to work hoping that they will be able to gain residency status. This is a very unrealistic goal as there are no pathways in place to ensure that they will obtain status even if they have been working on renewable contracts for years.
“Putting in place laws to ensure that these workers are admitted into the country as residents, will ensure them the labor rights and proper working terms they deserve eliminating all other issues that they might face such as fear of being deported or exploited”, Khan says.
Another solution, according to Khan, is demanding that the government unite workers from the employer so they can be free to seek employment elsewhere if they are fired or experience violence or harassment.
Khan says the federal government has failed on their promises to make changes after the 2017 Federal Budget lacked the promised details on reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. She says the coalition will continue to carry out their relentless advocacy until the demands are met and justice for migrant workers is obtained.