Beyond Our Plates: A Brief Report on the Lives of Migrant Agricultural Workers of BC

By Daniel Tseghay

On December 18th, Migrant Workers’ Dignity Association (Organizacion Dignidad Migrante) and Migrante BC are marking International Migrants Day with an event and a launch of a new report, entitled “Beyond Our Plates: A Brief Report on the Lives of Migrant Agricultural Workers of BC.” The 24-page report was authored by two Migrant Workers’ Dignity Association (MWDA) members, Alexandra Henao, a doctoral candidate at Simon Fraser University, and Raul Gatica, Executive Director of MWDA. The new report is based on over 1,300 interviews with migrant farm workers and the failure of the Ministry of Labour and Worker Safe BC to protect the rights of farm workers.unnamed’s Daniel Tseghay, spoke about the report and upcoming event with MWDA member, Alejandro Lazzari.

R&F: Can you tell me about the about how the information in this report was gathered?

Lazzari: The report was based on direct, first-hand interactions with over 1,300 temporary foreign workers in BC over the course of 2014 and 2015. The interactions took place during outreach, in the worker’s homes, in the places where the workers meet, over the telephone, during our weekly workshops at our office, when we help them with applications or Workers’ Compensation benefits, and when we have to take them to the doctor and translate for them. We even have these conversations when we host various events for the workers throughout the year. Our biggest one is probably father’s day in June where we had 150-200 workers at the last one.

This process is precisely the strength of this report. It’s brief but it is an incisive record of their lived-experiences and it’s infused throughout with direct quotations from these interactions. It will be unique and foundational within the history of this struggle as localized here in BC. The manner in which these experiences have been compiled, it will be new for readers and for those who want to get involved. For the first time the workers are speaking directly to them.

R&F: What are some of the common themes, and even differing experiences, of migrant workers?

Lazzari: There are several major points of discussion within the report. We talk about their geographical isolation, the difficulties that they to accessing services because of it, to get to supermarkets and whatnot, but we also talk about issues around language, issues about services not being available. Employment Insurance is not available for them when they need it.

We also talk about their experiences with recruiters back home. Some workers talked about how in order to get placement within the program, recruiters ask for a donation. Others wrote that they were actually paid to be in the program. We emphasize that while all temporary foreign farm workers are geographically and culturally isolated, and tied to a single employer, they’re usually the main source of income for their distant families at home and these have emotional implications. All these realities are compounded, intensified, for women who are not a quantitatively large part of the labour force. They’re probably about 5 per cent of the labour force but they have to deal with an added layer of sexism within the labour force, as they endure sexual harassment from farm owners, managers, and sometimes even co-workers.

R&F: I understand that the report details things like recruiters demanding payments between $1,000 and $3,000, the Jamaican government garnishing wages of Jamaican workers by 25%, and even holding on to the T4s of workers. Why would they do that?

Lazzari: The reasons they would keep someone’s T4s varies. At times it can simply be a question of the employer simply not complying with the employment contract. It could also be a question of who is doing their taxes. We’ve had various issues with carrying out income tax reports where the company with which they filed the tax reports did not care or pay enough attention to the peculiar conditions of temporary foreign farm workers and so various times we’ve had to actually demand from the employers their T4s, which they keep or forward directly to the income tax companies.

R&F: The federal government recently announced it was ending the 4-in-4-out, where migrant workers in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), but not the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), are deported after 4 years of work and not allowed to return for another 4 years. Does this affect the workers this report highlights?

Lazzari: We will have Migrante BC and the West Coast Domestic Workers Association at the event and they may be able to discuss this recent change and what it means for predominantly Filipino workers in the Caregiver program. The change is unclear how it may affect temporary foreign farm workers, particularly the SAWP, or the low-skilled stream TFWP.

R&F: What is the goal of the report? Of course the bare minimum goal is raising consciousness, making clear the reality, amplifying the voices of these 1,300 workers who, hopefully, represent the very many other workers that have been here, are here, and will be here. But what are some practical goals? How does this report fit in with the work of Migrant Workers’ Dignity Association in your actual, practical, on-the-ground, organizing?   

Lazzari: A key point of our association is how we raise awareness within the wider Canadian society about the conditions. The report has various recommendations, practical and doable recommendations that can be applied and pushed for immediately. The simplest one I can think of right now is having Services Canada, particularly the units that deal with temporary foreign workers, be bilingual, be fluent in the languages that these workers speak in their native languages, as well as having working hours that will allow temporary foreign workers to access these services. On the ground, it’s about talking to those representatives on the municipal and regional representatives that are supposed to do something about this. It’s about pressuring Canadian society to move on this, to reflect on what this society stands for. This is the cost of local food production, a new form of slavery. When will something change? The report is also able to present very concrete goals through which everyday Canadians can push for. It gives everyone some sort of guidance within what can seem like a very insurmountable problem.

It’s pushing elected representatives to create independent bodies that are able to visit farms, randomly look at the living conditions, the working conditions, as well as evaluating the transportation conditions, if there’s sufficient time allocated to receiving groceries.

Another point that we also want to stress is that the labour contract that temporary foreign workers give them no input in crafting this contract. It’s done by the farm employer’s and the governments involved. We push towards having the workers, or representatives, have a part in these negotiations. Government consulates shouldn’t craft these contracts since they’ve never been on the side of the workers in these matters. Ending any type of blacklisting, retaliation, repatriation because of complaints, because the workers seek a union or advocacy, should be part of the contract negotiation. We’re also calling for proper mechanisms to homogenize recruiting practices, to screen and monitor those government agencies and their subdivisions and the subcontractors that do the recruiting.

Press Conference: Sunday, December 18, 2016

Time: 4:00 pm (doors open at 3:30pm)

Place: Gordon Neighbourhood House, 1019 Broughton Street, Vancouver, BC

Program follows and ight food provided

Event listing on Facebook

Copies of the report will be distributed at the press conference and in the program that follows.

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