The Way It Is

Migrant Farm Workers

Migrant Farm Workers

I shot these guys while cruising through Hamilton’s constituent community of Millgrove.

There’s a fair bit of controversy regarding migrant workers in the province of Ontario. I used to think it was your usual triviality of citizens not wanting foreigners in their backyards. That does exist but to that there are citizens who have opined outright that most Canadians won’t do the work. In their eyes, their fellow Canadians stand accused of being “way too lazy” to perform labour intensive farm work. The critics say that it’s typical for farmers to try all other avenues of employment before resorting to the difficult process of hiring offshore workers.

Making this picture motivated me to seriously look into the circumstances of migrant farm workers in and around Hamilton. I found out that the prevailing concern was actually more than the aforementioned dissent.

In 1966, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) was established as a means to bring Jamaican workers to Canada in order to help compensate for a shortage of apple pickers. Today, SAWP is managed federally by Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC).

In recent years, approximately 26,000 migrant farm workers come to Canada annually. Most of these workers come through SAWP. The program is open only to workers from Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and the nine countries of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). The greatest number of Canada’s migrant farm workers reportedly come from Mexico and head to the province of Ontario.

In Ontario, the Foreign Agriculture Resource Management Services (FARMS) oversee SAWP for farmers for a fee of $35 per worker, paid by the employer.

The program allows workers to obtain work permits for up to eight months. The farmers who employ the workers can request to have specific workers return to work for them in future years, so long as the home country of the worker approves. You can imagine that issues like criminal convictions, suspicion of criminal activity and criminal associations, the contracting of a communicable disease, political conflict with Canada, conscription, domestic worker shortages, etcetera would be reasons why a country that wants to maintain adequate relations with Canada would deny one of its citizens the opportunity to work in Canada.

The source countries that participate in SAWP are responsible for recruiting the workers and are signatories to the workers’ employment contracts. Source country consulates within Canada are expected to act as the workers contact points and advocates for ensuring that the conditions of their employment contracts are upheld. Low-skill and other workers that find work outside of SAWP’s standards; such as the less restrictive Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) program or no program at all really could be anybody legit or illegitimate.

Still, experts in migrant worker circumstances say that the workers are inadequately protected. The problem is said to be not about SAWP having too few rules but about a lack of enforcement and control on farmers who violate the stipulations of employment contracts; such as pay, safety and other standards.

Experts have criticized that employer compliance with SAWP standards is either dependent on the employer voluntarily showing compliance or enforcement being complaint-driven. They argue that the system lacks the legal teeth to prevent abuses of worker rights from occurring in the first place. I presume that this leads to a theory that says that there is likely inaccurate statistics on violations.

The media has reported that employers who have been found to be violating provincial labour laws or health and safety regulations, that Ontario insists adequately protects migrant workers as well as citizen workers, are often only punished by being prevented from bringing in foreign migrant workers the following year or for another predetermined period of time.

Back in late 2008; when the global economic downturn had begun to take hold, Ontario’s provincial legislature began considering the implementation of special protection for both domestic and foreign migrant temporary workers.

Ontario began consulting with the provincial government of Manitoba, where landmark legislation to protect temporary foreign workers successfully came to pass.

The law in Manitoba authorizes the tracking of employers who bring in foreigners into the province on temporary work permits and permits the province to license only Canadian recruiters. Even families who hire nannies are required to register with the provincial government.

If inspectors in that province find that a worker has been made to pay for a job or isn’t getting the agreed wage or benefits, then the employer or recruiter will be made to pay it back.

Some citizens have expressed that the passing of legislation that would make the provincial government responsible for policing the employment of foreign workers wouldn’t work because it would require the hiring and training of new enforcement officers. This would expectedly cost too much time and money to implement. As it is the federal government and the employer who brings foreign workers into the country it is; therefore, believed that enforcement should come from the federal level.

Well, that’s the federal and provincial scope of the situation from a local perspective. It’s a start. I have yet to get specifics on what migrant farming is like around rural Hamilton.


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