Canada’s agricultural worker program violates migrants’ rights

Community experts explore the shortcomings of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program

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This is an image of a worker in a field of vegetables. They are carrying a box over their shoulder filled with the goods they have gathered, as they walk away from the camera. There are other workers in the distance who are also gathering vegetables.
PHOTO: Tim Mossholder / Unsplash

By: Andreea Barbu

On September 8, The Peak attended a talk discussing Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). The panel was hosted by the SFU School of International Studies. The talk was moderated by professor Gerardo Otero and joined by a panel of experts, including David Fairey, from Labour Consulting Services; Evelyn Encalada, from the SFU Labour Studies program; and Ana Berenice Díaz Ceballos, Consul General of Mexico in Vancouver. Their aim was to address the program’s impact on workers’ health and labour relations, as well as on workers’ families in Mexico.

The talk began by presenting an overview of the labour environment for food and agriculture workers. There are roughly 11,830 foreign workers in BC, with 6,000 being SAWP workers. The program was adopted by BC in 2004, although SAWP in Canada has been bringing in Mexican workers since 1974. It is a program that responds to Canada’s role in being the world’s fifth largest exporter of agrifood and seafood products worldwide. Within the SAWP program, “Canadian farm employers [can] hire workers from Mexico and the Caribbean on temporary visas when employers are unable to hire local workers to fulfill their labour demands.” Due to the temporary nature of the positions, workers are in precarious working conditions where they have no protections. 

Over the course of the last seven years she has been in BC, Berenice has visited 350 farms out of 550 that have SAWP workers. “Around 60–70% of the conditions of the housing were substandard. That creates a lot of problems,” as precarious housing can increase the workers’ vulnerability, Berenice said, recalling her visits to these farms. 

“The government needs to be much more involved in the process. I always try to stress what is really [ . . . ] the problem: monitoring.” Berenice explained how monitoring, supervising, and having preventive inspections is “one of the most important things.” She pointed out employers need to get approval from the Labour Market Impact Assessment, and one of the requisites is that they need to provide all the right conditions for their workers. Monitoring and conducting inspections into the working conditions workers face is a key part of enforcing healthy working conditions. 

Fairey echoed Berenice’s critique of these working conditions: “The SAWP program is a program that permits a high degree [ . . . ] of exploitation and discrimination of migrant workers.” In Fairey’s opinion, the program “should therefore be abolished, or at the very least, radically changed. The SAWP violates the rights of migrant workers in several ways according to the United Nations International Convention on the protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers.” 

Fairey listed some of the ways employers’ are able to exploit and mistreat their workers: lack of ability to choose housing, the lack of flexible work hours of work, lack of overtime provisions, the exclusion of statutory holiday pay, and the ability for employers to summarily terminate the employment of migrant workers without calls or the right of appeal, to name a few. “Migrant workers in Canada should have the same rights of employment as Canadian workers do, and the reality is that temporary foreign workers do not have the same rights as domestic Canadian workers. This is a fundamental problem.”

Encalada added more nuance to the discussion by calling attention to the role of climate change in exacerbating working conditions, and the increased vulnerability of women in particular. “This program not only discriminates against workers in terms of their status as temporary foreign workers [ . . . ] but also there’s gender inequity [and] racial inequity,” she said. “Of course, women need to feed their children too.” While there are a very small number of women workers who are part of SAWP, they face increased hostility from employers. 

Despite the criticism surrounding SAWP, Berenice clarified that many Mexicans have expressed to her appreciation of the program. “This has helped them to create their own business, [and] to send their children to university,” Berenice said. “That’s a game changer for them.” However, she stresses that this has been the experience for Mexicans with good employers and with good practices. 

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