In the Canadian agriculture industry, temporary foreign workers have become the number 1 labour resource, since Canadians are increasingly reluctant to work on farms and in related jobs. The demand for seasonal labour has increased as the agricultural exports industry has become an important sector in the Canadian economy, with a new record of $66.2 billion reached last year. According to the Conference Board of Canada, this sector generates 12 percent of jobs in the country, with a projected growth of 23 percent by 2025.
Seasonal migrant workers are brought mostly from the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America to work on farms for several months, and then return to their countries of origin, as they are not allowed to stay until the next season or apply for permanent residency. Many of them have been coming to Canada to work for decades. They have been doing a temporary job in a country with a permanent demand for their services. According to Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, without a stable and secure supply of workers, producers struggle to maintain operations and food production is constrained.
Although Canada’s labour laws apply to temporary foreign workers—giving them rights with regard to fair pay, hours of work and employment conditions—there are few monitoring systems of farmers or employers to ensure these rights are protected.
Seasonal workers are more vulnerable than others due to the nature and policies of the federal programs that brought them here. Many of them are stuck with abusive employers because their visas and work permits are tied to their contract. That means they have to leave the country as soon as they stop working, because they are not allowed to change employers under the same visa.
Although they have to pay income tax, insurance and make contributions to the Canada Pension Plan, just like any other person in the Canadian labour force, migrant workers don’t have access to federal services and don’t fulfil the requirements to apply for any of the pension plans or supplements offered to Canadian workers.
Access to services becomes almost impossible for them as they usually work and live in isolated communities, and have to face language and cultural barriers. There have been multiple cases of workers being returned by the employers to their countries of origin hours after being badly injured in the workplace, in order to avoid legal or financial responsibility. Women are even more vulnerable in these living and working conditions.
The federal government has been improving the working conditions of migrant workers and creating new programs to attract and retain more international workers to supply the demand in the field, but some of those new opportunities apply only to a small percentage.
We all benefit from the work of migrant men and women who come every year to supply the demand for agricultural workers. They are the ones who make it possible to have food on our tables. We cannot turn a blind eye to them just because they work quietly in the background of our society or because they don’t belong here. We may not be able to make changes in policy or get directly involved in improving their living and working conditions, but we can at least make sure that what we are eating is produced ethically.
In Canada, all workers have the right to be treated with dignity and respect without discrimination, but many foreign workers are falling through the cracks. Maybe we are content to have easy access to commodities without thinking about who is paying the real price. Gone are the days when we could blame lack of information. We can educate ourselves about whether the food we eat is produced ethically, which companies are taking advantage of vulnerable people and which ones deserve our support. Allowing injustice to be served at our tables is not good for migrant workers and is not good for Canada.
Captain Angelica Hernandez is the immigrant and refugee services resource officer at Harbour Light Ministries in Toronto.
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