Temporary Migrant Farm Workers

From Isabella, our summer intern:

A recent Vancouver Food Policy Council meeting focused on an important matter regarding our current Food System – temporary migrant farm workers. Much of the local food we enjoy is grown by the 28,000 migrant farm workers in Canada. (Data taken from the 2010 – 2011 Status of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada report).

Canada has two programs that enables citizens from other countries to come work on Canadian farms, The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Temporary Foreign Workers Program for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (TFW). While SAWP is open only to workers from Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and the 9 countries of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, TFW is open to all countries. Under the TFW program employers can bring workers in for up to 24 months and can be rehired for another 24 months, but after that they are not eligible to work in Canada for 4 years.

Under SAWP, workers can get work permits of up to eight months, and employers can request to have specific workers return to work for them in following years, but they can also ban the workers to participate in the program again for a period of time based on their work performance. This can create a sense of fear in the workers, who then become hesitant to speak up about unfair conditions like poor housing, long hours of labor with no rest, or inadequate transportation. Some will not even admit the need to see a doctor because the employer might deport or ban him.

Access to health services is also compromised by isolation, poor transportation, language, lack of accessible primary care services and the difficulty of taking time away from work. Of course, not all the employers allow rough living and working conditions, but this a frequent finding by the officials who enforce safety conditions.

Regarding immigration, the workers are not allowed to apply for permanent residency under the Provincial Nominee Program, even if they come back every year to work. The work permits issued by Citizenship and Immigration Canada are tied to one specific employer, which means workers ca not work for anyone else, even in periods when their employer has no work for them, which is a common due to the seasonal nature of farming. Migrant workers are subject to standard payroll deductions such as pension, income tax and employment insurance yet they are not eligible to obtain regular benefits.

One of the solutions being considered is to make Vancouver a Sanctuary City, following the examples of Toronto and Hamilton. A Sanctuary City ensures access to basic services for all its residents, regardless of immigration status. Health care workers do not ask about an individual’s status or report it to immigration authorities. Employers do not know that their worker is seeking health services, decreasing the worker´s fear of being banned from the program or deported due to injuries or health problems.

The program needs some modifications to allow more rights to the workers and more enforcement of safety conditions by the authorities, but its core has some beneficial aspects. It is a legal channel for labor migration, thus reduces unauthorized immigrants. It also increases access to employees in agriculture supply and food process industries. From the workers prospective, the program provides an opportunity to gain employment, earn money to improve their housing or pay for their children’s education, and access quality food and medical services.

Read here for more information on the Foreign Workers Program.

To know more about institutions that support migrant workers, check United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), the Agriculture Workers Alliance, and Justicia for Migrant Workers.

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