Canada is failing its seasonal migrant farm workers

by Stephanie Harrington

Digital illustration with a hand gathering flowers and a blue lake in the background

A SHORT DRIVE NORTH of Kelowna, as my car rounded a bend in the highway, the purple heads of thousands of echinacea flowers shimmered in neat rows, a pulse of colour among otherwise monochromatic grain fields. The temperature had tipped into the 30s on this early summer evening in 2015. The heat was a harbinger of hundreds of wildfires that would overwhelm the region by autumn.

I veered off the highway at a rest stop near a car dealership to meet two organizers from Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA). Formed in 2013, RAMA works to improve the living and working conditions of some 7,500 migrant workers in British Columbia. More than half of these workers labour on orchards and small farms in the Okanagan Valley. According to migrant justice groups, they will toil through the coming air quality advisories with little respite.

I was 10 minutes late, but RAMA organizer and co-founder Amy Cohen stepped out of a white Mazda at the rest stop and greeted me with a smile. An anthropology professor at Okanagan College, Cohen first became aware of the hardships migrant workers face while studying in the United States, where she met and later married a Mexican national, with whom she has two boys. When Cohen returned to the Okanagan Valley years later, she recognized the need for an organization like RAMA. In four years, the group has grown to include Spanish- and English-speaking volunteers who conduct outreach work, as well as core RAMA members who plan public advocacy campaigns and social events for the workers. During my summer 2015 stay in the Okanagan, I attended RAMA meetings and for a short time helped out at an English language group for workers.

Cohen turned towards the car to introduce me to another RAMA organizer, Luis Diaz, who waved from the passenger seat, a stack of pizza boxes steaming on his lap. When I dropped him off home later, he questioned my interest in migrant issues, and I realized he’s suspicious of me, a former journalist. I can’t say I blamed him. He was protective of the workers, and for good reason—the stakes are high. Visas are tied to one employer, leaving migrant workers vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and deportation.

I was there to accompany Cohen and Diaz on a visit to a nearby farm, where we would meet a group of migrant workers after their long shift harvesting lavender, basil, and echinacea. The visit is part of the outreach work RAMA does with migrant workers so they feel more connected to the local community.

“We might be the only Canadians they talk to during their time here,” Cohen said.

We were not far from the farm, and Cohen told me to follow them. I ignored a “No Trespassing” sign as our vehicles navigated a long gravel road, the sun an orange orb sinking in a cloudless Okanagan sky.

IT’S HARD TO OVERSTATE the importance of farming to this valley. From the fertile vegetable growing and dairy regions of the north to the fruit-producing, arid climate of the south, the agricultural industry shapes the Okanagan. More than 80 percent of Canada’s cherries and apricots come from this low-hilled region dotted with the remnants of glacial lakes. Raspberries, plums, apples, nectarines, peaches, and pears grow in abundance. The Okanagan produces 80 percent of B.C.’s wines, with 9,000 acres of vineyards. Many of its fruits are picked, packed, and transported across B.C., including to Vancouver Island. Pick up a basket of B.C. cherries or apricots from the supermarket this summer, and chances are a migrant worker from the seasonal agricultural workers program (SAWP) will have plucked those fruits.

The seasonal program enables farms to hire temporary foreign workers for up to eight months a year—between January 1 and December 15—if Canadians and permanent residents can’t fill the positions. What started in Ontario in 1966 as an agreement between Canada and Jamaica has since expanded to include Mexico and many Caribbean countries. Other programs, including a low-wage stream of the temporary foreign workers program (TFWP), bring migrant workers to the agriculture sector in Canada, but the seasonal program is by far the largest.

My interest in migrant workers extends to childhood. I grew up in southern Ontario and for a time lived near the town of Simcoe in the province’s tobacco belt. Every Saturday morning on the drive to swimming lessons, I would peer out the window at the hunched figures of men and women harvesting tobacco in the bright green fields. My mother said the labourers came from the Caribbean, from countries that seemed as far away to me as Saturn. She met them at Kmart’s layaway counter, where she worked, as they paid off televisions and bought gifts to bring to their families back home. I wanted to know, as I do now, who were these people that came and went with the seasons?

Across Canada, farmers individually sponsor more than 40,000 workers from Mexico and the Caribbean to work on farms, orchards and greenhouses. B.C. joined the seasonal agricultural workers program in 2004. What started 50-odd years ago in Ontario as a measure to fill an employment gap in Canada’s planting and harvesting seasons has become an entrenched part of our agricultural system. And, according to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, the shortage is expected to worsen, from a current deficit of 59,000 workers to 114,000 unfilled industry positions by 2025. A report attributed the difficulty in recruiting and retaining domestic workers to an aging workforce, the rural location of many farms, and negative perceptions about working in the sector.

The cherries we savour each summer are picked by the hands of men and women linked to a largely invisible chain of labour that involves bilateral agreements, complex immigration rules, and labour forecasts. Without these foreign workers, produce would rot on trees. Without these jobs, many of these migrant workers could not care for their families. Seems like a fair trade, right? Migrant justice groups argue otherwise. In recent years, these advocacy and labour organizations have been bringing attention to what they say is a racist, colonial food production system—one that Canada’s alternative agricultural movement cannot ignore.

Migrant justice groups argue seasonal agricultural workers are part of a massive underclass of temporary foreign workers in Canada, including live-in caregivers. Unlike some classes of temporary workers, seasonal agricultural workers have little chance of staying in Canada. (A recent Statistics Canada report found only three percent of seasonal agricultural workers gain permanent residency.) Yet some of these workers have been coming to Canada for decades, leaving behind their families for most of the year to earn minimum wage in a country hundreds of kilometres from home. Simply put, temporary foreign workers are good enough to pick our fruit, care for our elderly and young, and pour us coffee at Tim Hortons, but according to immigration rules, these workers are less desirable citizens.

"Welcome to Canada" with green background

TWO HOUSES SAT at the end of the winding driveway, one a small white farmhouse with a brand new Ford pickup parked out front, the other a simple one-storey workers’ cottage. Old bicycles were stacked under a sprawling oak tree, and a garbage bin overflowed with cans of Coke and Sprite. I guessed the latter cottage housed the migrant workers. No one was around as we stepped from our vehicles. I motioned to the Mercedes van parked out front and asked Cohen if the workers drove it to and from town.

“They use it to deposit their paycheques every couple of weeks,” Cohen said. “They told me their boss checks the mileage when they get back, so they don’t take it anywhere else.”

She paused and gestured toward the highway. North of Kelowna lies Lake Country, Winfield, and Vernon. To the south extends the whimsically named Peachland and Summerland, as well as Penticton. The calm blue eye of the 135-kilometre long Okanagan Lake connects the region.

“There are literally hundreds of farms minutes from here with migrant workers,” Cohen said. “Some of them never get off the farms. These guys are lucky. They’re not too far from the city. Usually they ride their bikes to the bus stop and take it into town.”

Later, on a drive through the winding back roads of the Okanagan Valley, I encountered dozens of small farms, some with the multiple telltale trailers often used for hired labour. No public registry keeps track of which farms employ migrant workers. Outside of the Okanagan, many migrant workers can be found in the Lower Mainland and a few on Vancouver Island.

RAMA volunteers find creative ways to reach the workers. “Sometimes I go to Superstore on a Sunday and hand out flyers, so they know RAMA’s here for them,” Diaz said. “That’s one of the only ways to find out where the farms are.”

Walk through the fluorescent-lighted aisles of Canadian Superstore on any Sunday in Kelowna, the most common day agricultural workers have off, and you’re likely to encounter a much more diverse crowd than any other day of the week. According to government data, visible minorities make up 25 percent of the population in B.C., but in Kelowna that number drops to five percent. The region is staunchly conservative. Evangelical churches populate strip malls. There’s a Pro Life Thrift Store and a Salvation Army Bible Mission Shop. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think the concerns of developing-world migrants would rank low on the social agenda of this regional agricultural powerhouse.

***

A COUPLE OF PIZZA BOXES were thrust toward me. Diaz shut the Mazda with his foot, a 12-pack of Coke tucked underarm. I took the pizzas and followed him up the porch’s low steps. Cohen knocked on the screen door.

Hola,” she called.

A backlit figure in shorts and a T-shirt appeared to greet us. We entered the home, and I noticed he was stocky and tanned, probably in his mid-40s. Two gold teeth flashed when he smiled. He and Cohen exchanged greetings in Spanish, and I realized that I would be at a disadvantage in this visit. Few of the workers spoke English. Both RAMA organizers were fluent in Spanish; I relied on them to translate. The man ushered us through the hallways, past a laundry room with two ancient machines. Beyond the vinyl-tiled hallway and kitchen, the house was carpeted, clean but aging. I’d heard a lot about the poor housing conditions endured by some of the migrant workers, who live in accommodation provided by their employers—often trailers with little ventilation and no air conditioning in stifling 30°C to 40°C heat. Tiny, inadequate kitchens and bathrooms shared by 10 men. Women have it particularly tough, with little privacy provided. Cohen later told me female workers are vulnerable to mistreatment, harassment, and sexual assault, sometimes at the hands of their employers.

A long folding table with six or seven chairs dominated the bare kitchen. A door to what I guess must be a bedroom remained closed. The living room was arranged like a 1950s nuclear family might have it, with two old plush couches and a couple of worn chairs. A huge, empty cabinet that probably once contained family china and gravy boats occupied an entire wall. A boxy colour television blasted a Hollywood movie. Through the window, the sky had faded to a soft grey. A tangerine glow edged the hills.

Men gradually emerged from behind the closed door. As it opened and closed, I spotted single beds arranged in the room and caught glimpses of sleeping figures. Soon I was surrounded by hands. Big, calloused hands, as rough as gardening mitts, enfolded mine. I shook them and smiled.

Hola,” I said, practising my very limited Spanish.

Several men milled around the kitchen table. Cohen and Diaz continued to greet everyone. There was laughter, the scraping of chairs, and in minutes a half-dozen workers were seated in front of the cooling pizzas. Eight men lived there, sharing a house typical of a Canadian family of four. Still, Cohen told me this was one of the better farms. Everyone conversed in Spanish. Cohen had visited here before, in previous years, and the men asked about her children and her family’s approaching trip to Mexico. Diaz unstacked and opened the soggy boxes and pushed the cheesy contents to the centre of the table.

Coca?” he asked, offering each man a can of soda.

A bottle of ketchup and hot sauce appeared on the table. I heard a door open and another younger man emerged from the bedroom. Cohen tried to keep me in the loop of conversation, translating the major topics.

“How many hours do they work each day?” I asked.

Most of the men had just finished their shift, she told me. It is 7:30 p.m. They had worked since 5:30 in the morning, and done so six days a week, with one-hour breaks each day. They are here to make money so they don’t mind the long hours, Cohen said. The minimum wage they earn in Canada exceeds what’s paid back home. The weather was a big topic around the table. It was so warm the cherries on some farms had ripened two weeks early.

“Hot,” the man with gold teeth said for my benefit. He fanned his face with his hand.

A man in his sixties nodded at me and smiled from across the room. He was the oldest among the workers, who ranged from their mid-twenties to what Canadians would consider retirement age. His hair was grey, and his skin tough from years of exposure. Cohen said the man had been working in B.C. for the past eight years for six months at a time, a demanding schedule for any person, never mind someone who I will later discover is a grandfather.

Conversation turned to a documentary movie made in Ontario about the Mexican consulate not standing up for workers’ rights. Heads shook around the table. These workers pay income tax, and into the Canada Pension Plan and employment insurance, but benefits are hard to access. Cohen told me if a worker is fired, there is no recourse or appeal. Because their employment is tied to a single farm, it is difficult for migrant workers to voice concerns about unfair or unsafe conditions—they are afraid of losing their jobs. Cohen said many of the workers identify as Indigenous in Mexico.

“If conditions are poor, they can’t leave to find another job,” she said. “They’re reliant on good evaluations by their boss so they can continue working in the program. What I hear from workers on a daily basis is, ‘We can’t speak out.’”

Two weeks later, at a volunteer meeting, Cohen was blunt about how she perceived the seasonal agricultural workers program.

“It’s slavery modernized. They’re forced to be an unending pool of labour for us,” she said. “Choice is a luxury. Because of economic policies and free trade agreements rich countries developed, they’re disenfranchised. They need to leave their country to find work.”

An illustration of a farm worker on a field with orange, yellow, and green layers.
Illustrations: Samantha Wey

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IN SEPTEMBER 2016, a federal standing committee delivered a review of the temporary foreign workers program and made 21 recommendations. These included introducing open work permits, ending the requirement for seasonal agricultural workers’ visas to be tied to one employer, and providing better pathways to permanent residency.

The report noted the committee received “positive feedback” about the SAWP from agricultural organizations and Jamaica. “In their view, the SAWP provides many cultural and financial benefits and does not need to be reformed.” Migrant workers, along with advocacy and labour groups, saw things differently. The report documents disturbing instances, including that of Jamaican farm worker Sheldon McKenzie, who died in September 2015 several months after receiving a head injury at a tomato farm in Leamington, Ontario, 250 kilometres from where I grew up. The Toronto Star reported a liaison officer with the Jamaican consulate tried to have McKenzie sent back to Jamaica as soon as possible, a term called “medical repatriation.” Injured workers are bad for business, The Star reported, and under the SAWP, consulate workers and farm employers decide which workers stay in Canada. McKenzie’s cousin, who lives in Winnipeg, fought the deportation, but after 12 years in the seasonal agricultural workers program, the father of two died in an Ontario hospital.

In a joint submission to the committee ahead of its final report, more than a dozen migrant justice groups demanded that seasonal agricultural workers be granted permanent residency on arrival and gain full access to social protections like medical treatment to help avoid tragedies such as McKenzie’s death. The federal government made a number of changes to the temporary foreign workers program, including introducing housing inspections to ensure migrant workers’ accommodation meets minimum standards. In a 2017 budget statement, the government also committed to “further develop pathways to permanent residency so that eligible applicants are able to more fully contribute to Canadian society.” In a recent media inquiry to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, a spokesperson confirmed the government is “reviewing the pathways to permanent residence available to temporary workers who are filling permanent labour shortages and are already well-established in Canada. That review is ongoing.”

But more than a year after the report was handed down, migrant justice advocates say the Trudeau government has not given any indication about how its commitment to develop further pathways to permanent residency might affect seasonal agricultural workers—or if indeed it will include them.

In an interview in January, University of Toronto Ph.D. student Anelyse Weiler, who volunteers for the group Justice for Migrant Workers, says that powerful agricultural lobby groups want to maintain the status quo. The analogy she used to describe the federal government’s actions so far is “putting lipstick on a pig” compared to the dramatic changes migrant justice groups are demanding.

“Permanent immigration status on arrival would cut to the core of all the systemic issues,” says Weiler. “It would put the onus on the government to address how low wages operate throughout the capitalist agricultural system.”

She says the migrant workers issue “throws to the fore problems of white supremacy and institutionalized racism and classism that make people very uncomfortable.”

Not everyone agrees. Simon Fraser University public policy professor Dominique Gross says that permanent residency would not benefit seasonal agricultural workers.

“Their standard of living is very good in their own country as they all come from poor countries,” she wrote in an email interview in January. “With a seasonal job and permanent residence in Canada, their standard of living would be much lower as the daily cost of life is much higher and their salaries are not very high since they are not highly educated.”

Still, some things are changing. Starting in January in B.C., farms will be inspected to ensure migrant workers’ accommodations meet minimum requirements. Weiler cautions, however, that the standards are so low—80-square-feet of living space and one toilet per 10 workers—that even if followed, housing conditions can be “very substandard.”

She hopes the federal government’s plan to develop a national food policy could bring change that would “institute dignity and better living conditions for migrant farm workers.”

Some agricultural groups are pushing for better deals for their employees, including Mushrooms Canada, which released a report in October urging the government to grant permanent residency to 870 migrant farmworkers working in its industry to help fill job vacancies.

For all the shortcomings of the conventional agricultural system, Weiler urges consumers not to boycott these products. Instead, she suggests, Canadians should put pressure on governments to make immigration and employment standards more equitable for seasonal agricultural workers. Good intentions of buying organic produce from small-scale farms won’t make life better for thousands of migrant workers in B.C.

“The impulse to generate alternatives to the current system is a positive one,” she says. “At the same time, there’s a lot of work to be done to change the system as it is.” Although meaningful in its own way, nurturing backyard gardens does little to change wide-scale structural problems. “Dynamics of race and class affect who gets to participate in the alternative food system,” says Weiler. “Planting lettuce in your backyard doesn’t address serious concerns about workplace injury and substandard housing for migrant workers.”

 

WHEN I THINK of the seasonal agricultural worker program, I reflect back on my visit to the farmhouse nearly three years ago. After the pizza and conversation, the men pulled out cell phones and showed photographs of their children and grandchildren. Cohen powered her laptop and demonstrated to a couple of workers how to download music onto their phones, their lifeline to home.

Before we left, the eldest worker, who earlier showed me a photograph of his grandchildren, offered to make the RAMA visitors a drink. He filled a pitcher with water and sliced four limes in half. He heaped sugar into the pitcher, topping it with ice. I observed as he squeezed each lime segment as easily as I might squish a tomato. After stirring the drink, he poured three tumblers full and handed one to each of us. I lifted the glass and let the cold, tart drink fill me. He watched for a reaction.

“Delicious,” I told him and raised my glass. “Gracias.”

He nodded, grinning, and savoured his own beverage. The sky through the window behind his head glowed yellow and lilac. Dusk had settled in. Empty pizza boxes gaped open. Soon I will gather my things and return to my apartment in Kelowna—home, a place these workers could only dream of until the harvesting season finished. Next year, many of them will be back for the spring. Then they’ll complete the cycle again. ♦

 

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