Migrant farm workers call for permanent residency, ability to bring families to Canada
Soon after the 2008 global financial crisis, the combination of a hurricane and a disease that devastated banana crops pushed Ricky Joseph out of his job as a banana salesman in Saint Lucia. With unemployment rising in the Caribbean island nation and two children to support, Joseph decided to come to Ontario in 2011 as a migrant farm worker.
Since then, hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime have taken a toll on Joseph, 44, who relies on energy drinks to help him get his job done. Meanwhile, the declining loonie is affecting his ability to support his teenage kids. “Their mom passed away and they depend on me for their total support,” he says.
Alberto Moreno, a Mexican who came to Ontario as a Temporary Foreign Worker in 2012, says he spilled acid on his foot a week after landing in Canada because his employer had not taken safety precautions. Though he eventually received compensation after filing a complaint with the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Moreno says the acid burn took five months to heal because he didn’t have access to health care and his employer wouldn’t admit a workplace injury had taken place. He also says he lost his job over the complaint.
Joseph and Moreno are part of the Harvesting Freedom campaign launched Monday in Ottawa by the advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW). The campaign calls on the federal government to grant permanent residency to migrant farm workers who come to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program on the grounds that this would protect their labour rights and make the system more compassionate by enabling workers, who may spend years away from home, to bring their families to Canada.
Joseph is one of the roughly 18,000 Seasonal Agricultural Workers who worked in Canada in 2015. Since each worker’s permit to remain in Canada is tied to a specific employer, activists say most migrant farm workers are hesitant to complain for fear of falling out with their employer and losing the ability to send money home to their families.
“The moment you speak up, you face the risk of being deported or not requested back on the program,” Joseph says.
Rather than granting residency to a broad category of workers, Dominique Gross, a public policy professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, argues that enforcing existing laws and labour regulations should be enough to protect migrant rights. “In the past, that’s what the problem has been. There have been regulations, but the government was really not checking if they were respected or not.”
Even so, after years of campaigning for government action, migrant advocates say it’s not enough. They highlight issues ranging from unpaid overtime pay to serious violations of health and safety standards that they say would be easier to tackle if workers weren’t fearful of losing their right to stay in Canada.
Permanent residency would mean uniting me with my family
“This is not a case of individual injustices — it’s systemic injustice,” says J4MW organizer Chris Ramsaroop, adding that Seasonal Agricultural Workers return to Canada annually, sometimes for decades. “They are attached to our society and it makes every sense for them to be considered residents of Canada.”
The group’s call comes amid concerns raised by economists and businesses about the design of Canada’s temporary worker programs.
“We think there should be more avenues for workers at all skill levels to be a permanent part of our country,” said Richard Truscott, vice president for British Columbia and Alberta at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Though designed for temporary employment, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program function as a Band-Aid solution for long-term labour shortages, he added.
Even so, Gross says it’s not “logical” to give permanent residency to Seasonal Agricultural Workers. Though they spend as much as eight months away from their families in Canada each year, they are able to afford a better life for their families in developing countries than they could if they were supporting their family in Canada on minimum wage, she says. She adds that they may even earn more than people with higher skills in their home countries.
Instead, she argues permanent residency should be accessible to those Temporary Foreign Workers who spend year after year in Canada for non-seasonal jobs no Canadians are willing to fill.
For Joseph, whose children are cared for by relatives in Saint Lucia while he works in Canada, the value of a policy-change is clear.
“Permanent residency would mean uniting me with my family,” he says.