Canada’s agricultural worker program is under scrutiny amid the pandemic
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For the first five months of the pandemic, Enrique, a temporary farmworker from Guatemala working in Ontario, Canada, said he and the 20 other farm workers with whom he shared a bunkhouse lived with total restrictions on their movement.
“We could only leave home to go to work and vice versa,” he said in Spanish, “and only leave there to come back. Nothing else.”
Enrique asked not to use his full name because he will be on the job market for a new employer and sponsor for his next visa.
In Canada, workers who arrive on temporary agricultural visas make up a key and growing part of the workforce on farms, ranches and food processing plants. They travel to Canada on visas tied to work contracts with their employers, ranging in length from a few months up to two years, and generally live in company housing near or on their work sites.
Calls to overhaul temporary worker system
The pandemic highlighted poor conditions on some farms, bringing attention to advocates’ long-standing calls for an overhaul of the system that brings these workers to Canada.
Enrique worked for a company growing cannabis, which Canada has legalized, and also found the work itself physically difficult. He said he spent much of his day crouching and crawling around young plants.
“My body hurt a lot,” he said, but when he asked to change roles, “the only response I got, he says, was that ‘this is the job, and if you don’t like it, then don’t be here.’”
COVID-19 outbreaks on farms brought risks faced by temporary workers into stark relief, said Karen Cocq with Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. Some, she said, have been “using that to pry the door open to shed more light on the systemic issues that exists with the temporary work programs that put people in these dangerous situations.”
Some in the industry question how widespread those problems are. Keith Currie, an eighth-generation farmer in Ontario and first vice president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said a lot has been made of a few bad actors.
“If you look in society, in general, you’ll find employers that are not fun to work for,” he said. “But we do have the availability for the worker to change their … working condition, who they’re working for.”
Open work permit
In 2019, the government created a pathway for workers facing abuse to apply for open work permits, which are not job-specific and are valid for one year.
Robert Falconer, an immigration researcher at the University of Calgary, said exploitation of workers often occurs on large farms that employ a lot of workers.
“This is not the majority of farmers,” he said. “But certainly, the number of cases that we have seen is concerning.”
He said that changing jobs remains far more difficult for temporary visa holders than for others in the workforce and that raising complaints can involve greater risk.
“When the livelihood of their family, let’s say back in Jamaica or Mexico, is tied solely to one employer, there can be a power imbalance,” Falconer said.
Excluded from collective bargaining
Enrique was able to obtain an open permit with help from Santiago Escobar, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Temporary farmworkers are excluded from collective bargaining in Ontario by law, but Escobar has helped a number of workers apply for these open permits. He said many workers find it hard to obtain required documentation about workplace problems to complete the process. The program is still new, but he said he sees early recipients struggling to find sponsors once the one-year permits expire.
“Because they already speak up,” Escobar speculated. “Because they already reported a bad employer [it] seems like, you know, employers don’t want to have that kind of workers.”
The UFCW has called for temporary agricultural visas to allow people to work for any business in the sector.
Cocq of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and other advocates have argued that workers require a permanent immigration status to assert their labor rights. Her organization has criticized temporary and pilot programs the government has created offering some workers permanent residency, saying they have required language skills or fees that most can’t meet.
“We have migrant farmworkers who have been coming to the country for 10, 20 or 30 years, temporarily, without the same rights and protections and services as other workers,” Cocq said.
Currie of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture said he doesn’t believe many workers want to move to Canada full time, but for those that do, “if we can find a way to make that happen, that that satisfies both individuals’ needs and the government’s needs, let’s look at doing that.”
Without permanent residency, Cocq said, farm workers also can’t bring family members with them, the people they spend so much time in Canada to help support.
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