Study puts BC migrant work under a microscope

By Daniel Tseghay

A new study, released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), provides an in-depth look into the conditions of exploitation facing BC migrant workers, and makes substantive recommendations for federal and provincial policy change.Citizenship-Precarious-Cover

The report, “Citizenship and Precarious Labour in Canadian Agriculture.” published by Gerardo Otero and Kerry Preibisch, is based on extensive research taking place between 2007 and 2009, and includes questionnaires with 200 farmworkers, with focus on the experiences of farmworkers in British Columbia,

British Columbia and Alberta have seen the largest increase in temporary migrant workers in the country in recent years. In BC, temporary migrant workers have exceeded permanent resident intake as of 2008.

“[W]e recruited participants from the three valleys that together account for nearly three-quarters of BC’s horticultural farms,” the authors write.

“We contacted Mexican participants at churches, supermarkets and migrant-support centres and South Asian farmworkers through service providers. Our research team conducted interviews and questionnaires in Spanish, Punjabi or English, fostering rapport through shared language.”

What they discovered was widespread exploitation in the province that only started employing migrants in 2004 when agricultural employers were allowed to access the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP).

Migrant agricultural workers have erratic schedules and work demanding shifts. Hourly wages are low, but often they’re paid a piece rate, based on the amount of produce they labour on, often earning them less than the minimum wage.

The authors note that BC’s farmworkers aren’t paid overtime, compensated for statutory holidays or rest periods, nor given annual vacations. Few farmworkers are unionized, as we’ve reported previously.

Farm work is incredibly dangerous, particularly for migrant workers. There’s the “exposure to agrochemicals, plants, soil, insects, sun and climatic extremes; hazards posed by machines, vehicles and confined spaces; and repetitive and stressful ergonomic positions.”

Some farmworkers, the authors continue, take on duties that involve regularly breathing particles in. They note that in 2008, three BC farmworkers died and two now have severe brain damage after breathing in toxic gas in a mushroom farm’s composting shed.

Unfortunately there are few avenues available for migrant farmworkers to address these issues. There are few legal protections, a lack of information about health services, and, most importantly, “both immigrant and migrant farmworkers lack secure income and thus may be unwilling to forfeit wages by taking time off from work.”

It’s this vulnerability that makes migrant labour so attractive to employers, explaining the dramatic increase in their employment. In 2003, after a couple decades of shifting towards temporary permits, about 98 per cent of BC’s 6,000 farmworkers were South Asian, according to the authors.

In 2004, when growers were allowed to access the SAWP, the use of migrant workers exploded. In 2008, for instance, 3,000 Mexican migrants were employed in BC. The shift “from a flow of people to a flow of labour power” was reaching an extreme point.

Immigrant farmworkers – those who have permanent status – are also made vulnerable and are therefore exploited by the industry. Family Class immigrants, the authors write, often feel a pressure to repay their families for funding their move to Canada, meaning they remain working on farms with poor labour standards.

Otero and Preibisch, however, are not content with simply detailing the conditions for migrant and immigrant farmworkers. They’ve also spelled out some recommendations.

Provincially, they recommend health coverage for workers upon arrival, a more thorough administration of the Workers’ Compensation Act to ensure safer conditions on the farms, and the forging of closer connections with activist and community organizations to provide farmworkers with greater connections with their surroundings.

They recommend that the federal government grant permanent residency upon arrival so that workers can unionize without fear of deportation; an amendment to the Immigration and Refugee Protections Regulations to ensure that Family Class immigrants aren’t so dependent on sponsors; and alter the SAWP to allow open work permits, so workers can change employers if the conditions are poor (something we’ve reported on previously).

This isn’t an exhaustive report on their recommendations as they are extensive. And the report is, hopefully, part of a larger project. It’s not the first detailed account of exploitation on the farms, and it probably won’t be the last.

The recommendations should certainly be considered and accepted by governments, but that will take more organizing by allies and farmworkers themselves.

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