‘Opently racist’: Lawsuit challenges Canada’s migrant farm worker system | Workers’ rights news

Montreal Canada – “It would be contrary to the entire Canadian faith in individual freedom.”

It was 1952, and Canada’s then-immigration minister, Walter Harris, was rejecting the idea of ​​linking migrant farm workers from Europe with their Canadian employers.

“It would of course be possible to take steps that would ensure that a man who says he’s coming to Canada as a farm worker remains a farm worker. We could even hold the possibility of deportation over his head,” Harris said.

“However, I believe the Canadian people would be completely opposed to any such practice.”

But fifteen years later, government officials are singing a different tune. As it continued to face labor shortages in the agricultural sector, Canada began importing Black and Indo-Caribbean seasonal farm workers.

But unlike their European counterparts, these black and brown field workers were closely linked to their specific employers, a rule that remains at the heart of Canadian law. Migrant agricultural worker Today’s programs.

Experts and human rights advocates say this system undermines workers’ ability to organize or demand better wages and conditions; prevents them from leaving abusive workplaces; makes them vulnerable to exploitation; They are asked to pay into an unemployment insurance system that they cannot access; It exposes them to retaliation, including deportation, if they speak out.

Now, a proposed class action lawsuit (PDF) highlighted the “racist and discriminatory” origins of so-called restricted employment in these schemes. The lawsuit alleges that Canada’s migrant worker programs violate the country’s constitution, officially known as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“The reason for imposing these strict conditions was clearly racist,” said Louis Century, a lawyer involved in the lawsuit seeking 500 million Canadian dollars ($371 million) in damages.

“The government must take into account and reckon with the fact that the policy it continues to impose after more than 50 years was implemented for racist reasons,” he told Al Jazeera. “This has caused harm to generations of racialized workers, and it must end.”

the system

Canada launched the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, or SAWP, in 1966 as part of a bilateral agreement with Jamaica. More than 260 Jamaican workers traveled to Canada that first year to fill gaps in the agricultural sector.

Before that, non-white immigration to Canada was “heavily controlled,” explained Hyacinth Simpson, associate professor of English at Toronto Metropolitan University.

This was because “black and Asian peoples in particular were considered undesirable, unassimilable, and unlikely to bring any benefits to the country,” Simpson, a postcolonial scholar, told Al Jazeera in an email. or something else”.

“Most often, when ‘undesirables’ were accepted in relatively large numbers, it was through federally sponsored work programs in which immigrants were employed temporarily or seasonally so that Canada would benefit from their labor without having to bear the same kind of responsibility for them.” “. “For them as well as for the citizens.”

Since its inception in the 1960s, the workers’ program has expanded to include Mexico and 10 other Caribbean countries. In 2022, More than 70,000 Temporary foreign workers work in Canada’s agriculture and agri-food sectors through SAWP and other agricultural programs.

Workers pick fruits and vegetables on Canadian farms, work in meat processing plants, and serve as the backbone of an industry that is now worth its salt Hundreds of billions Of dollars. Under SAWP, foreign workers can work in Canada for up to eight months in one year, and it is not uncommon to find immigrants moving back and forth between their home country and Canada for decades.

Within this system, restrictive employment practices are a “tried and true method” of maintaining a power imbalance between employer and employees, Simpson added. This includes linking farmworkers to specific farms or employers, preventing them from changing jobs, and even busing workers between their residences and grocery stores.

“The cumulative effect is to marginalize and isolate farmworkers in Canadian spaces and keep them disconnected from everything that is Canadian,” she said.

A migrant worker loads trays of onions in Manitoba, central Canada
A worker loads trays of onions at a farm in Manitoba, Canada, April 28, 2022 (Shannon Van Rees/Reuters)

“They are treated like mules”

In fact, for almost as long as these schemes have been in existence, workers have reported abuse.

Foreign workers are forced to live in crowded, substandard housing and work long hours in unsafe conditions for low wages. Many say they fear being deported or being prevented from returning to Canada for next season if they raise their concerns with their employers.

Chris Ramsaroop, an activist with the group Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW), described the Canadian system as “treating black and brown workers from the global South differently than Canadian workers.”

For example, he noted, employers could terminate the contracts of migrant agricultural workers early if a frost, or other extreme weather event, strikes Canadian crops and they are no longer needed.

“Instead of trying to compensate workers like everyone else in Canada facing similar circumstances, we are simply sending workers home,” Ramsaroop told Al Jazeera.

“The way the system is set up works against the interest of migrant agricultural workers,” he added. “This was designed.”

In 2022, a group of Jamaican farm workers Publicly denounced They are mistreated on farms in Ontario, saying they are “treated like mules” and face threats and physical and verbal abuse. They said the conditions were akin to “systematic slavery.”

This was echoed about a year later by a United Nations expert described The Canadian system as a “fertile ground for contemporary forms of slavery.”

UN Special Rapporteur Tomoya Obokata He said last September That “employers’ work permit systems” were particularly dangerous, making “migrant workers vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery, as they cannot report abuses without fear of deportation.”

Employment insurance

Kevin Palmer understands this fear. In 2014, he left his native Jamaica under a SAWP contract and arrived at a greenhouse in the small town of Leamington, Ontario — the self-proclaimed “greenhouse capital of Canada.”

“We were living in the greenhouse,” the 42-year-old told Al Jazeera in a phone interview in late January. “We slept on a bunk bed, with two men – one upstairs and one downstairs. There were 12 of us, so there were six (bunk) beds in the room.”

The tasks were arduous — he spent long hours tending to crops and harvesting vegetables — and Palmer said he was often working against the clock to meet his daily quotas. But the father of two said he never lost sight of his goal: to earn money to help his family “live a better life for the future.”

But after six farming seasons in Canada, his contract was abruptly terminated in 2019, and he was sent back to Jamaica. He said Palmer had few resources left and no explanation as to why he was fired, and has been unable to work in Canada since.

He also never received Employment Insurance (EI) when he was forced to leave Canada, even though he signed up for the program. “They (withdrew) a lot of money from us,” said Palmer, one of two plaintiffs named in the class action lawsuit.

The prosecution alleges that restricted employment excludes migrant agricultural workers from accessing Canada’s economic insurance benefits – another Charter violation. This is because, to achieve emotional intelligence, workers must be in-country and open to other work, among other requirements.

“They are required to pay unemployment insurance premiums and, under the restrictive mandatory employment provision, are necessarily barred from receiving regular benefits at all,” the lawsuit states.

Migrant workers working under SAWP and the agricultural pathway of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program have paid more than C$470 million ($350 million) in economic insurance premiums since 2008, according to the claim.

“I don’t know if we’re entitled to recover (that) money,” Palmer said.

Dairy cows on a farm in Quebec, Canada
Dairy cows on a farm in Quebec, Canada, on August 30, 2018 (File: Christine Mouché/Reuters)

‘Countless injustices’

Employment and Social Development Canada, the country’s federal labor ministry, told Al Jazeera it could not comment on matters before the courts.

But the department said in an emailed statement that Canada “takes its responsibilities regarding the protection of temporary foreign workers very seriously.”

She noted that the government introduced an open work permit in 2019 to allow “vulnerable workers” to leave abusive situations. Canada also maintains a confidential tip line to allow temporary foreign workers to report abuse, and is working to “improve the quality of employer inspections.”

“Employer-specific work permits are an important feature” of Canada’s temporary foreign worker programs because they allow Ottawa to know “which employers are hiring temporary foreign workers at any given time and in what locations they are working,” the department said. .

But according to Century, the class action attorney, this employment model remains a source of “countless injustices.”

“It makes them more vulnerable. It deprives them of the freedom to leave a difficult situation and seek work elsewhere, and… it has the effect of depriving them of the significant benefits of emotional intelligence that ordinary workers would otherwise receive.”

Al-Qarn said the lawsuit is still in its early stages. A certification hearing is expected to be held next year to determine whether it can move forward. If so, every current or former migrant agricultural worker who has worked in Canada over the past 15 years would be considered part of the class.

“(This) is only the first step in dealing with this country’s racist legacy,” Century added.

“Ending bonded labor today does not address the harm it has caused to generations of workers over the past 50 years. But, at the very least, it stops perpetuating that harm.

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