By Daniel Tseghay, RankandFile.ca Writer/Organizer
In the orchards of the Okanagan, Mexican and Jamaican farm workers plant and prune. Some, mainly women, are in the packing houses. Many of these migrants handle pesticides with little to no training and without proper protective gear for spraying. “They often complain of getting sick from the chemicals, getting rashes on their hands, and infections in their eyes,” says Amy Cohen, an organizer with Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA), a non-profit based in the Okanagan. They’re working long, hard hours – usually six or seven days a week – and often labouring weeks on end without a break during the harvest.
When Mexican farmers started leaving their country because of the decimation caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), they came to Canada to find work. Canada’s trade policies abroad have helped to create a surplus labour supply, and the ballooning of both the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the agricultural stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) have grown to facilitate the export of these workers. Currently, around 4,900 migrant workers from Mexico are employed in British Columbia, most of whom can be found working the fields of Okanagan Fraser Valley.
The reality of Canada’s foreign worker programs
Foreign workers employed through the SAWP are only able to work in Canada for a maximum of eight months, with no chance of achieving permanent residency. These workers can return for subsequent eight month periods if employers request them. Both the sending and receiving country are involved in facilitating the SAWP workforce, with countries like Mexico tasked with recruiting workers each year. Despite this involvement of governments, labour standards are infrequently followed, if at all. The only punishment facing employers who are found violating health and safety standards is being prohibited from recruiting migrant workers for a certain period of time. And this is assuming these violations are even uncovered and reported.
The reality is that there is no systematic monitoring of farms or the conditions of employment migrant workers face in B.C.. Groups like RAMA, therefore, have taken on the role of documenting these violations. “We do that by doing audio interviews with workers – often anonymously – photographing and videotaping or digitally videotaping conditions,” says Cohen.
Another non-profit, Migrant Workers’ Dignity Association (MWDA), does some of the same documenting work. They also organize workers so that they may be able to respond to these conditions as they happen. “We train them to learn about the labour laws,” says Raul Gatica, an organizer with MWDA. “We also encourage them to stand up for their rights in the moment when managers discriminate against them and don’t want to pay them.”
Unfortunately, because the workers’ continued employment depends on a positive report from the employer, they are often dissuaded from making complaints. “The workers are afraid all the time with or without us because that they know that the only the chance to provide money for their family is coming to work in Canada,” says Gatica. “They are afraid of losing their job because in Mexico and Jamaica they have no jobs. It’s the same with the TFWP workers. They’re scared of losing their jobs because they paid their recruiters a lot of money to come to Canada, so they have borrowed money from someone else in their country, so they’re in debt and they have to pay them.”
This has kept many workers from making complaints and from unionizing, even though B.C. employment standards legislation enables them to do so without the threat of dismissal or deportation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of migrant farm workers in Canada are not represented by a union.
The challenge of organizing
There are many stories of employers sending workers home at the very hint of union organizing. “Workers on one farm in the Kelowna area were interested in unionizing and, within days, they were on a plane home,” says Cohen. In 2012, Gatica, then a part of the Agricultural Workers Alliance, helped prove the Mexican consulate was blacklisting workers who appeared to be union sympathizers.
This has made unionizing incredibly challenging. But both RAMA and Migrant Workers’ Dignity Association are deep in the fight for better labour conditions for migrant farm workers. For RAMA, an all-volunteer group, that consists of doing translations, providing transportation and accompaniment for workers to various appointments. RAMA also facilitates a crisis intervention system when migrant workers face sexual assault – a frequent phenomenon for vulnerable farm workers.
Gatica notes that Migrant Workers’ Dignity Association was founded by around twelve farm workers. “We are not activists,” he says of the members who organize throughout B.C.. “We are community organizers. We are workers too. We are migrant workers. I used to be a farm worker too.”
This personal connection with farm labour has allowed Gatica to recognize the importance of organizing and associations like MWDA.
Cohen reminds us, for instance, that the Okanagan agricultural industry would collapse without migrant labour. And the shift, as Cohen puts it, “towards filling these short-term labour gaps with temporary people that the government doesn’t deem fit to be citizens” is rooted in this profit motive.
“They get 200 per cent of the profit when they use temporary foreign workers because they’re cheap labour,” says Gatica. “The workers are experts and they’re hard workers. The companies have the capacity to compete in the international markets because they have quality products, cheaper prices, and they enough to provide food for everybody.”
“You will see how many things that you have on your table is thanks to those farm workers.”