Solidarity, uncertainty and hope as Harvesting Freedom reaches Ottawa

unspecified-2By CJ Chanco

“Expel the barbarians!” a lone man shouts as a group of picketers turn a corner around Laurier Avenue.

“Hey, hey, hey white supremacists out now,” they yell back. Slowly the ranks of the protesters grow, as passers-by look on in curiosity and representatives from a number of national union offices join them.

This scene captured the tensions behind the month long Harvesting Freedom caravan. Farmworkers and their supporters from across Ontario have travelled 1500 kilometres, from Leamington and Windsor to Ottawa. Some communities welcomed them with open arms, while others have been lukewarm and even openly hostile.

On Monday morning, the caravan marched through the streets of the capital after a brief press conference at Parliament. Reaching the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Office, they held a picket, calling on federal immigration minister John McCallum to attend to the concerns of migrant workers.

McCallum has declared repeatedly a need for the Liberal government to increase Canada’s immigrant population, in the context of an aging domestic labour force. But while Canada has opened its doors selectively to everyone from international students to Syrian refugees, “low skill” immigrants – including those in the service sector, farmworkers, and migrant caregivers who have been here for decades – appear to have fallen under the radar.

Speaking at the picket was Jason, from Trinidad, who had his medical insurance slashed after falling ill at work. Jason has worked in Leamington as a farmworker for over a decade, on and off. He had applied for, but was twice denied, permanent residency status.

Gabriel, another farmworker from St. Lucia, noted that “slave-like conditions” have been the fate of Canada’s underclass of racialized workers for over half a century. Mirroring the exploitative guestworker programs of countries like Kuwait, Canadian immigration agencies are seemingly content to inform workers of their rights and leave it at that. Without the full set of rights granted by permanent residency or full citizenship status, however, the situation of temporary workers can only be one of permanent exploitation.

Others present at the picket were members of CUPE National, Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), the Canadian Labour Congress, the Workers Action Group of Solidarity Against Austerity-Ottawa (WAG), and a number of volunteers from the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign.

“We need to recognise these human beings who are a staple of Canadian society who are working for us day in and day out”, said Larry Rosseau of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC).

He detested their treatment as third class citizens. WAG’s Brian Edgecombe added that the struggle of migrant workers is fundamentally an anticapitalist one, which ought to bring together those who work in Canada from across all sectors, regardless of their countries of origin.

A number of unaffiliated individuals were drawn to the caravan after watching the documentary, Migrant Dreams. Ottawa local Patrick Beaudry said he had always had a vague suspicion that “migrant workers had it bad,” but it wasn’t until joining the caravan that he understood the full extent of their exploitation. He now finds it funny that politicians call on foreigners to integrate into Canadian society and “accept Canadian values.”

“What are Canadian values, if not fairness and justice for all who live and work here?” asked Beaudry.

Behind closed doors

Participants expressed their dissatisfaction with the contents of the federal review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Justicia’s Tzazna Leal called it a review “for more reviews”, benefitting employers more than workers. The review process itself took place over only five sessions, with consultations that prioritised employers and their organisations.

Apparently responding to industry calls to increase the cap on the migrant workers they can hire as a proportion of their workforce, the review calls for exactly that. Fast-track processing will allow employers to increase the numbers of temporary foreign workers from 10% to 20% of their workforce (which still excludes farmworkers).

Importantly, while the review recommends the transition to sectoral worker permits, as opposed to employer-specific work permits that tie workers to one employer at a time, there is no specific mention of the agricultural sector. A crucible of Canada’s one employer-per-worker scheme, the Seasonal Agricultural Working Program (SAWP) is mentioned only in passing. Instead the report recommends the expansion of SAWP through integration with the seafood industry, while it also suggests applying the same SAWP standards in the tourism sector.

There is no mention in the report of family unification or improving medical benefits, housing conditions, or other benefits still denied to migrant workers. While the report mentions evidence on the abuses of migrant workers and the personal stress generated by the constant threat of deportation,   there are no recommendations to address these issues.

Unsurprisingly, the committee undertaking the TFWP review has been received with optimism by agribusiness lobby groups and Jamaica, one of the countries with the oldest bilateral labour export arrangements with Canada. Employers argue the SAWP need not be reformed stating, “it offers several cultural and financial benefits and is important in helping to fill labour gaps in the agriculture and agri-food industry.”

Justicia, which supported the push for a federal review of the TFWP, had sent messages to several Liberal MPs when the Harvesting Freedom campaign started as early as January.

But official reception to the caravan has, at best been lukewarm. They had trying, without much success, to get a personal meeting with immigration officials.

After the picket, however, Maryanne Mihychuk, Minister of Employment, Workforce and Labour, did arrange a brief meeting with the protesters. Adriana Ramirez of Toronto’s Workers Action Centre said that she echoed the contents of the federal review in simply recommending that workers and employers be provided better information on the rights and duties of migrant workers upon arrival.

This fails to address the real issue: the lack of full recognition of the rights of workers, as well as the duties and responsibilities on the part of the government and employers to ensure that migrant workers’ rights are respected.

The fight continues

At the end of the picket Ishmael, a farmworker from Trinidad, mentions he is an avid reader of history and geography. Asked whether he feels any risk participating in political events like this one, he shrugs his shoulder and says he’s not doing this for himself.

“I’m old, and the fight will go on. But this, for me, is a new step. I’ve learned so much today. I can never stop learning,” he says.

His wife and two children are still in Trinidad. His daughter is studying to be a lawyer and his son has a passion for physics and chemistry.

In his youth, Ishmael participated and won several national feather weightlifting competitions. He also worked on commercial ship liners for more than twenty years, travelling across Europe and North America, before settling in Canada, where he has been precariously employed, shuttling between Ontario and Trinidad, as a farmworker for over a decade. He rejected a US green card four times, because there was no way to get it legally.

In his spare time, Ismael writes music, everything from gospel to reggae, and hopes to score big if Mel Gibson stumbles on a copy of his new song, Megiddo, on Youtube.

In other words, he is not staying a farmworker forever, but he earnestly hopes things improve for his children and future generations. He notes if the world keeps an open mind things can change.

“The mind is a parachute. It only works if you keep it open,” Ishmael says.

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