Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Modern Slavery of Ontario's Migrant Farm Workers

by Chris Ramsaroop of the Justicia for Migrant Workers Campaign

Over the past few months glossy TV ads have promoted Ontario’s agricultural industry through the campaign “Good Things Grow Here in Ontario”. With a catchy tune these ads encourage consumers to buy Ontario fruits and vegetables. Missing, however, from these commercials are the images of those responsible for putting fruits and vegetables on our tables.

For over forty years Canada has relied on Caribbean and Mexican migrant workers to harvest our fruits and vegetables. These workers are employed under the auspices of the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (CSAWP), an employment scheme of our government that hires Mexican and Caribbean Workers to work in our agricultural industry for up to eight months annually. The program operates in Canada in every province with the exception of Newfoundland. The overwhelming majority of these workers are employed in Ontario. However, there is increasing demand for these workers in other provinces, particularly in British Colombia and Quebec.

While the Canadian government alleges that the migrant worker program represents ‘best practices’ – a model program for migration in Canada. However, what is a ‘best practice’ for the farming industry and the Canadian government is far from what would be considered a best practice from the perspective of the average worker.

It is quite common for migrant workers to compare the CSAWP as a form of modern day slavery, and they are demanding an end to conditions where they are treated worse than animals in Ontario’s fields. These workers, despite their contributions to the Ontario economy, can never apply for permanent residency in Canada. The farm worker program prohibits workers from applying for status. Furthermore, if workers speak out against the injustices they face they can be ‘repatriated’ (deported).

Along with their precarious immigration status, workers are subjected to working and living conditions that are heavily exploitative.

In our experiences, workers have reported being forced to work in fields that had recently been sprayed with dangerous chemicals and pesticides, being forced to work up to 18 or 19 hours a day, not being provided with water while working, nor being provided with bathroom facilities at their site of employment. Many of these workers experience racial harassment from supervisors and are denied breaks while at work – this despite working under temperatures reaching close to 40oC.

Instead of workers receiving medical attention for injuries sustained at work, many of them are simply ‘repatriated’ back to their countries. These workers have no medical assistance while working under extremely harsh conditions in Canada. As a result of these repatriations our organizers at Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) has heard of numerous stories where workers have either died or have become permanently disabled as a result of injuries sustained in Canada.

Despite these injustices, workers and their allies in organizations such J4MW are fighting back against these injustices. Emphasizing a workers-led model of organizing, J4MW co-ordinates campaigns with workers to address the numerous complaints they have pertaining to the CSAWP program. From advocating for reforms in migrant worker accommodations to demanding the legal right to organize, J4MW works to build solidarity amongst migrant communities as well as developing educational campaigns to raise awareness on the conditions faced by migrant workers to the greater community many of who have no idea of who represents the real face of our agricultural industry.

Recently J4MW and several community organizations have come together to demand changes to Canada’s two tiered healthcare system. While universal for permanent residents, migrant workers have been denied the basic right to access our healthcare system.

For more information to get involved with J4MW, you can visit www.justicia4migrantworkers.org.