Migrant Farmers In Canada Allege Inhumane Treatment; No Proof, Says Labour Minister

Thousands of Jamaican migrant workers spend several months each year working for Canada’s agricultural sector, a practice that has been ongoing for nearly 35 years under Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Work Programme. However, a group of Jamaican farm workers recently sent a letter to the Jamaican Minister for Labour and Social Security condemning the allegedly abhorrent conditions in which they work and seeking justice. The workers called the programme akin to “systematic slavery” and alleged that their employers treat them like they are “not human beings.”

The letter has not been answered with the outpouring of support that they were seeking. Minister Karl Samuda – on a recent visit to farms in Ontario, including the ones where the abuse was alleged to take place – rejected these claims, stating that there was no evidence of such abuse. This disavowal has left many workers feeling abandoned, with the authors of the letter stating that it is clear that they “cannot look to the authorities for help” and that they must protect themselves.

Over 50,000 workers from Mexico, Jamaica, and several other Caribbean nations can come to Canada to work for up to eight months each year under the Agricultural Work Programme. Many harvest crops. Others work in food processing. There is a dire need for this labour, as Canada lacks the necessary manpower to fuel its $63.3 billion agri-food industry, but these workers live in poor-quality housing, are exposed to dangerous chemicals, and live in fear of reprisal from their employers, who are responsible for their permits.

This is not the first time that migrant farm workers have complained about the conditions that they are forced to work in. Many have made allegations against their employers in the decades since the programme began, but this letter is perhaps the first to gain international media attention.

The crux of the issue is that farm workers, including the Jamaicans who submitted this complaint, are only temporary residents in Canada. The work permits which allow them to stay in the country are dependent on their employers, leading to a major power imbalance and putting the farm workers at a severe disadvantage. Speaking out could cost them their livelihoods. Their status as temporary residents leaves them unable to exercise their rights.

“As long as we have a temporary immigration system, farm workers will be exploited,” says Syed Hussan, of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (M.W.A.C.).

Carla Qualtrough, Canada’s Minister of Employment, condemned the mistreatment of foreign workers and assured that a full investigation under the provincial government into the alleged abuses would take place. Her office in Ottawa has poured over $30 million into supports for migrant workers, including a superior workplace inspection programme, but it appears that these measures have not gone far enough.

However, the Canadian parliament has passed a motion asking the government to compose a plan “to expand pathways to permanent residency for temporary foreign workers,” suggesting that there is hope that change will soon be enacted. A national day of action has been planned for September 18th, calling for legal statuses for all migrant workers, refugees, and undocumented people to be introduced. This would align with calls from farm workers and organizations like the M.W.A.C., who have advocated that granting farm workers full and permanent immigration status is the best way to protect farm workers’ rights and to avoid future abuse allegations.

The Jamaican farm workers’ letter should serve as a wake-up call to the Canadian government: it must do more to protect its temporary citizens if it wants to curtail human rights abuses. No worker should fear retribution for speaking up about deplorable conditions, regardless of their country of origin or legal status. Every worker deserves to feel heard and respected. As Parliament resumes, hopefully it will make improvements to the current system without delay.