Did you know that agriculture tops the list when it comes to workplace fatalities in Canada? Yet, in Alberta, migrant workers aren’t covered under the Occupational Health and Safety Act – and in every Canadian province, all foreign workers are vulnerable to reprisals if they protest unsafe conditions. Meanwhile, both Alberta and Ontario prohibit unionization of migrant agricultural workers.
As Toronto gears up to host the so-called G20 summit with what former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin was instrumental in designating the world’s most powerful economies in South as well as North, many voices beg to differ on who should decide the fate of the world. Among the most dispossessed of these voices are some representing those who labour to produce what the world eats, or otherwise consumes. Migrant workers are now a fixture of North-South value transfers, their flight serving to palliate lacunae in employment opportunities within their home countries as their low-cost, easily manipulated labour fills the gaps in host economies.
As one of those hosts, Canada has allowed employers to benefit from migrant work for over 40 years. The federal government administers the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Temporary Foreign Workers Program for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (TFWP). The number of workers involved, most of them from Mexico and the Caribbean, has jumped from 5,000 in 1978 to over 20,000 by 2006. Tied to a single employer, these workers are vulnerable to deportation should they speak up about health and safety violations or substandard living and working conditions. None of them are eligible for overtime, holiday premiums or vacation pay. They also have Employment Insurance premiums deducted from their paychecks, but very few know of any opportunity to receive benefits.
This is something the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada (UFCW) is working to change. Since 2002, the union has provided information to workers through support centres. In 2008, it created the Agriculture Workers Alliance which now operates nine agricultural worker support centres across Canada, helping to file health insurance and prescription claims, intervening in repatriation and helping with tax forms, workers’ compensation, vacation pay, and parental benefits.
To counter the G20 summit agenda, the UFCW held the No Rights, No Rules: Migrant Workers in a Globalized World conference, in English and Spanish, in Toronto on June 20. One panel outlined the global situation and the general situation in Canada; the other panel let workers tell their stories.
As UFCW president Wayne Hanley pointed out from the start of the conference, the union’s slogan is “if you’re good enough to work here in Canada, you’re good enough to stay here.” Stan Raper, the national representative from UFCW’s National Organization Department, observed that some agricultural workers don’t want to stay in Canada and be residents. “I understand that,” he said, “but why not give them status so they can come and go as they please?” He compared the existing visa system to slavery, under which whoever isn’t “a good boy” can be deported.
At present, only residency status can end this vulnerable state. However, activists such as Max Correa, Secretary General of the Mexico-based Central Campesina Cardenista, believe the true solution is genuine free movement of labour, accompanied by genuine guarantees of workers’ rights, to go with the free trade of goods and services under NAFTA. He pointed out during a videoconference interview that many migrants are forced to leave their land as a result of the devastation and pollution wrought by Canadian mining companies.
NAFTA, however, won’t help anyone from outside North America. Filipino activist Marco Luciano outlined how migrant worker programs affected his own country of origin. Filipino migration has occurred since Spanish colonization hundreds of years ago. In the early 1900s, large numbers were sent to the Americas to work in plantations. By 1929, 18 % of Hawaiians were Filipinos, working as fruit pickers and farm workers. During the Great Depression, thousands were deported. Some workers stayed in California to pick grapes for vineyards, others went as far as Alaska.
In the Philippines proper, 75 per cent of Filipinos depend on the land, most of which is owned by a few landlords. Produce tends to be cash crops such as flowers, pineapple and asparagus rather than subsistence crops such as rice. Farm workers are the lowest paid of all. The only urban sources of income are factories, garment shops and export processing zone companies owned by multinational corporations.
Luciano observed that the Filipino government acts as a broker for international interests: with the export-oriented, import-dependent country subject to massive unemployment, the government has endorsed a labour export policy which provides an outlet to diffuse social unrest, addresses the unemployment problem and brings foreign currency through remittances totalling $18 billion in 2009. In that same year, one million Filipinos left their country as migrant workers, at the rate of 3,000 per day. Canada is host to the lion’s share of these: 400,000, 185,000 of whom come to the GTA. The systematization of migrant worker exports has been practically enshrined by the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which touts remittances as foreign aid and migration as a tool for development.
Angela Rankin, who visits agricultural migrant workers in Canada and counsels them on their rights, spoke of the living and working conditions she witnessed on farms in Ontario. In one instance, there were 20 beds in a single room. In another, workers were forbidden to shelter from the rain during downpours and thunderstorms. She informed the audience many workers were afraid to come to the conference for fear of being deported. “At the end of the day, without them, we would not have anything to eat,” she pointed out.
Of the workers who spoke about their experiences, many remained anonymous, fearing reprisals, as moderator Sonia Singh explained. Many face fraud upon arrival in Canada. One male caregiver paid $8,000 USD, only to discover his employer did not exist. The agency which had promised him work told him he would have difficulty getting a job because he was a man. Finally, after several months, he found work in construction, which he had never done before. However, this caused problems with immigration authorities. He is now awaiting a ruling on his case.
Another worker came in from Jamaica to work as a chef in a resort in Northern Ontario. After three months of training, 20 people in her group were told their contract was terminated. They lost their $1,000 fee and had to pay their airfare back home. Then, she discovered the work she obtained was only part-time and occasional. The mother of four children was left with paychecks of no more than $100 a piece in some cases, in addition to having to pay rent. The group had no means of going to the bank or buying food. “This country has not been good to me,” she observed. Soon she will be returning home.
One live-in caregiver described her extensive experience in Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada. Caregivers are overworked, maltreated and underpaid, as well as often subjected to sexual harassment. Workers are separated from their families for years, facing isolation and potential alienation.
Even though it is now illegal for agencies to collect placement fees from live-in caregivers coming to work in Canada – a legal provision that has yet to be applied to other migrant workers – many still pay because of the crushing poverty and unemployment in their home countries, as Gina Bahiwal testified on behalf of the Underdog Project. “Most of us are college and university graduates. We expected to live in a nice house, at least a comfortable house”, but the building in which she was housed by the agency was old and dilapidated, she explained. There were nine people living in a three-bedroom apartment and six to eight people in a two-bedroom one. Workers were not free to join organizations or to meet with other Filipinos in Canada. The agency tried to frighten workers by threatening not to renew work permits. “People were afraid of losing their jobs, not being able to feed their families”. Two weeks ago, the agent brought contracts and said that without cash, there would be no copy of the contract. People paid, but got no receipts and no copies of any contracts. “We want these abuses to stop. We are here for them, speaking on their behalf”, said Bahiwal.
In short, some victories have been obtained in law, but to have these enforced and respected is still another matter. One obstacle is the lack of information workers have before coming to Canada, and in some cases after their arrival. Organizations such as the UFCW and the AWA seek to redress the balance.