Conditions Tough for Canada's Migrant Workers

STEPPING THROUGH the narrow doorway of the grey, barracks-like place Everton calls home, you pass through flimsy walls of wood panelling until you're standing in the centre of the small room he shares with another man. Arms hanging straight at your sides, your fingers can touch the mattresses of both makeshift beds. Two ropes draped with an orange T-shirt and navy pants traverse the low ceiling at oblique angles. The rest of the men's belongings are crammed into a corner closet or scattered over their beds. Down a tight passageway is a similar room, this one with three beds. To go to the bathroom, shower or even have a drink of water, Everton has to walk 10 metres to a separate building. That's also where he launders his clothes, by hand. To make a phone call, it's a 1.5-km walk into town.

These two-room units are the luxury accommodation on the property, housing about 30 people in seven buildings. The less fortunate make do with one of 30 bunk beds arranged open-dormitory style under one roof. To create the illusion of privacy, the men here have strung sheets around the lower bunks and between some of the beds. They've dubbed the building "Vietnam." And when you take in the high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire that surrounds their lodgings, the imagery that name connotes resonates even more deeply.

But this is not the Third World. It's not even the southern United States. It's Canada's own Deep South, the swath of southwestern Ontario stretching between Windsor in the west and Niagara Falls in the east. And the men are foreign nationals, invited into the country under the seasonal agricultural workers program (SAWP), Canada's answer to the century-old predicament of never being able to find enough workers to keep our farms running. For farmers, the program is a boon, a way to get relatively cheap, reliable labour and stay in business. For workers, too, there are positives, most notably a job, and one paying more than they'd make at home. But increasingly there are concerns about the fairness of the program and the employees' lack of rights.

In the past, orphans, prisoners of war and new immigrants have been among those to take up the slack on farmers' fields. But in 1966, after Ottawa struck its inaugural SAWP agreement, the Jamaican government recruited 264 men to travel north; the handful of host farmers in Ontario paid for the men's visas and the bulk of their return airfare, put them up in their houses or other farm buildings, and set them to work picking apples. Four decades later, the program, now drawing on a labour pool that spans the entire Caribbean and Mexico, has mushroomed to 19,000 men and women. For anywhere between six weeks and eight months, these guest workers plant, tend, harvest and/or package grapes, strawberries, tomatoes, tobacco, ginseng, flowers and more at 1,600 farms, greenhouses and food-processing plants across the country.

Those same four decades saw a radical transformation of rural life as thousands of family farms gave way to large-scale agribusinesses. Today, factory-like operations employing dozens, often hundreds, of workers compete with companies from every corner of the world to land their produce on Canadians' dinner tables. In nine provinces, foreign agricultural workers are a growing presence. But in Ontario, which takes in 85 per cent of SAWP participants, and where the horticultural sector expanded by 90 per cent between 1994 and 2000, they are the linchpin of a $3.6-billion industry. "If it wasn't for migrant workers," says Gary Cooper, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS), the coalition of employers that administers SAWP, "labour-intensive agriculture in Ontario would be virtually non-existent."

While Everton's living arrangements represent one reality, it's not the only, nor even the typical, face of the program. As Fanny Belcoski, who runs the Simcoe migrant workers support centre (one of five such facilities opened in the last three years by the United Food and Commercial Workers union) attests, "There are some excellent farmers, and most are pretty good" - providing decent housing, attending to health and safety concerns and simply treating the workers with respect. Still, she has a vast storehouse of complaints culled from the 200-plus people who drop into the centre each week: a supervisor relentlessly berating his charges; a man who nearly lost a leg to an infection he was told to ignore; workers without proper facilities washing clothes in the Niagara River; others forced to escape their lodgings at night and walk an hour to phone their families; greenhouse employees sleeping a metre from massive boilers. Those who speak up about conditions, she says, risk getting fired and repatriated, frequently within 24 hours.

That's why Everton insists I use a pseudonym and not divulge the name of his workplace. During my visit to his lodgings, wary stares followed our every step. If the program meets everybody's needs so well, says Belcoski, "Why so much fear? It doesn't make any sense." The native of Colombia, who moved to Simcoe 22 years ago when she married a Canadian teacher, adds: "I can't believe this happens in Canada."

Nor can a number of other people. Unions, academics, church and social justice groups are among those trying to rectify the worst abuses and promote the rights of foreign workers. They're also keeping an eye on a new, less regulated federal initiative that brings in low-skilled workers in other industries. As Canadians increasingly depend on migrant workers - who number perhaps 170 million worldwide - to keep the prices we pay for produce in check, and a multi-billion-dollar industry afloat, advocates for workers pose a timely question: are we doing enough to protect the welfare and dignity of our guest workers?

OUR DEPENDENCE on migrant labour runs deep and wide. For every guest worker, estimates Cooper, a Simcoe, Ont., produce farmer who employs 90 people under the SAWP, three Canadians hold jobs in the transport, packing and container industries. And he notes that the migrants spend two-thirds of their earnings here - an $82-million bounty each year for local shopkeepers, restaurateurs and providers of telephone, banking and other services. A Simcoe discount store manager told University of Guelph researchers that the migrant workers' pre-return shopping spree is "literally like Christmas in September."

They may be more visible as consumers, but the workers are here to make money. Even at $7.70 an hour, with no overtime and the government skimming off about a third of their pay for taxes and other contributions, they still net more than they would doing the same work at home, were such jobs even available. While they cart home any number of small appliances, secondhand bikes and pairs of sneakers, their Canadian incomes go, for the most part, to providing the basics. Gustavo Rosales, 42, has worked in the Simcoe area since 1991, on tobacco, celery and cauliflower farms, and, for the past three years, at a ginseng operation. "My boss is good," he says. "The only problem is that I work so much hours - 11 hours a day. It's hard for me." He calls his wife and four children aged 4 to 15 in Mexico City daily, most recently to check up on his son, the eldest, who's been skipping school. And every two weeks, he transfers money home. "If I'm not working," says Rosales, "my kids don't have food."

George Nash, a 21-year veteran of the SAWP, is one of many Jamaican migrants who will spend any extra money he earns this year on rebuilding his house in the wake of September's Hurricane Ivan. Watching the devastation of his country on TV, he recalls, "I was weak - like I could go to the hospital and lie down." His wife and four children, he later learned, took refuge in the basement as their roof blew off. The 48-year-old farmer (his wife tends the crop while he's away seven months of the year) is among the more fortunate of his compatriots. He works for Cooper who, between interest-free loans and shipping donated building materials south, is spending $15,000 to help out.

About half the guest workers on Cooper's 800-acre Strawberry Tyme fruit and vegetable farm live in two bunkhouses on the main property. The larger of the two is far from elegant, but it's comfortable enough. A white plastic curtain divides a vast common room in two, concealing an industrial-style kitchen where the men cook their own meals. In front are two long picnic tables draped in red-checkered plastic cloths. A set of dominoes and a homemade board game are evidence of their after-work activities. There's also a TV, a dozen beat-up armchairs and couches and two telephones. The washrooms and laundry facilities are in an adjoining room. The sleeping quarters upstairs are narrow but private. And pinned on the wall are a series of helpful notices, including phone numbers for the Jamaican liaison officers (whom workers can call for help with disputes and other issues).

Lawrence Boothe is in the field by 6:30 or 7 at least six mornings a week. "Picking strawberries is hard on the back for a little while," says the 42-year-old Jamaican. "Your muscles start to break." But he knows he's got it good. "The system's not there for some guys." Nash too has heard stories. But when pressed, he won't be specific. "Mostly about the way people are treated by their bosses," he says. "Lots are scared to say anything because they want to come back."

Cooper acknowledges "not all farmers are good managers." But he insists the number of abuses is "very low." He encourages farmers to make their workers feel at home. "It's the little things," he says, which on his farm includes telephones (a local line and a pay phone for long distance), accepting visitors on the premises until midnight, and making a pickup truck available if someone has to go into town for a prescription. As for working conditions, he adds, "we don't stand over anybody's shoulder. We've got a good training program and those workers who assume extra responsibilities get paid more."

THE WIDELY DIVERGENT circumstances of Everton on the one hand and Boothe and Nash on the other, claim the program's critics, are not accidental. Rather, says Kerry Preibisch, a University of Guelph sociologist who has interviewed some 70 workers since 2000, they stem from the very structure of the SAWP. The farm workers do not have the rights and benefits of Canadian citizens and, unlike foreign labour programs in other sectors, there's no mechanism through which they can eventually gain status. Assigned a specific employer and living arrangements, they can switch jobs only if their embassy and their old and new bosses both approve. Although they pay into employment insurance - to the tune of $3.4 million every year - they can't collect a penny if they lose their jobs unless they stay in the country (they can, however, collect both pension and parental leave benefits back home); those who are let go prematurely are typically repatriated (usually at the employer's expense) within 24 hours, without a chance to appeal or arrange another job. But if they refuse to leave, they foot the plane ticket home (normally, SAWP employers cover two-thirds of travel costs) and have to find - and pay for - a place to stay.

These "extra-economic coercions," as Preibisch describes them, set the stage for potential abuse because, she says, they make "workers' everyday reality dependent on the subjective good will of their employers." What's more, despite 20 work-related deaths last year, none of Ontario's 100,000 agricultural workers are covered by health and safety legislation, and they don't have the right to bargain collectively. The United Food and Commercial Workers have two charter cases currently before the Ontario Superior Court vying to reverse those exclusions and a third case challenging the migrant workers' effective exclusion from employment insurance benefits. Meanwhile, a committee of the province's commodity growers presented the ministries of labour and agriculture their proposals for legislation in late September. They include the right of workers to refuse a job and strict regulations for the applications of pesticides - a common hazard for migrant farm workers.

Cooper agrees it's unjust to deny SAWP workers employment insurance. But he insists it isn't merely a "cheap labour program." The additional costs of lodging, visas and airfare push the farm workers' wage to over $10 an hour. (The bulk of the industry's profits doesn't go to the farmer but, notes Preibisch, "ends up in the pockets of retailers, food processors and fast-food chains.") So why do farmers take on those costs? "You go into a food terminal tomorrow morning, and you'll see produce from any number of countries," says Cooper. "They ship their best stuff. We have to compete in that market, and one way to ensure high quality here is to have reliable, affordable labour."

But reliable, argues Preibisch, cuts both ways: it can also be a euphemism for "unfree." As one Mexican farm worker she interviewed told her, "We can't move freely in the labour market. If we could, the farmers would have to compete with each other to provide adequate housing and good labour practices." Chris Ramsaroop, a member of the Toronto-based activist coalition Justice For Migrant Workers, says many of the people he meets on the streets and at malls in southern Ontario where he distributes leaflets, "don't mince words about slavery." That's a phrase Cooper takes exception to. "Some advocates like to perceive this as a captive labour force," he says. "It's not. According to the contract they sign, they can go home whenever they want. The employer guarantees 240 hours of work. If they work only 150 hours, we have to pay the other 90 hours."

CARLETON MORGAN, 48, spoke up about his problems. Sitting at a kitchen table in the spacious but dilapidated farmhouse he shares with four other men, he looks hopefully at Ramsaroop and three other migrant labour advocates listening to his story. Two years ago, Morgan strained a muscle in his right hip while picking strawberries. Because the doctor retained by his employer for staff didn't attribute the injury to Morgan's work, workman's compensation rejected his claim. Returning to McGuigan Orchards near Blenheim, Ont., in 2003, he was able to pick strawberries and plums for most of the season. This past May, Morgan arrived for his 21st year of working in Canada, hoping to do the same. But the pain was too much. Not only had he started to walk with a pronounced limp, but when he stretched his arms overhead for prolonged periods, his neck and shoulder muscles became weak, forcing him to stop. As a result, Morgan has spent the last half of the summer barely working - and not getting paid. Unhappy with the way the liaison officer who helped him file the original claim dismissed his concerns this year - he accused Morgan of lying and tried to embarrass him before other workers - Morgan turned to the migrant workers centre in Leamington, Ont. Staff there have taken on the file, but three days earlier, he learned he was to be repatriated in less than a week.

Ramsaroop is there to talk about his options: Morgan could leave and hope that others will see his case through in his absence, or he could try to delay his return and live with a friend in town. That way, not only could he see a specialist in Toronto, but a legal clinic could assist him with his appeal. As Morgan sifts through the plastic bag for a copy of his contract, his visa and other documents, he seems unsure which way he'll go. He knows, however, that no matter what, he won't be back next year. (Last week, he took an early flight home.)

The failure of the liaison officer to back Morgan up is a familiar story, says Ramsaroop. The government representatives, he says, are in a compromised position. On the one hand, they're supposed to protect the workers' interests; on the other, they compete with representatives of other countries to get as many placements as possible. According to Preibisch, that competition is stiff, and Mexico currently has the edge, having increased its proportion of the SAWP workforce from 22 per cent in 1987 to 57 per cent in 2003. The Caribbean and Mexican governments rely heavily on remittances from workers' wages as a source of foreign exchange; in Mexico, it's second only to oil. In fact, recent trends in global economics explain the exponential growth of the SAWP. Caribbean and Mexican workers' livelihoods, says Preibisch, "have been eroded by trade liberalization. It's not possible for most rural producers, for example, to make a living."

BACK WHERE Everton lives, on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, itinerant vendors from Toronto have opened up trucks full of jerseys, shoes and other clothes for the workers to peruse. There's not a lot of selling going on. Perhaps the prices are too high, or most have already done their shopping. In a couple of weeks, they'll be heading home for the winter. On the last day of work, says a Canadian employed alongside Everton, the atmosphere is charged. The migrant workers sing spirituals and dance, some of them acting out a church service. "The rest of the place comes to a standstill as they beat out the time on the equipment," he says. "Some of us join in. It lifts you off the ground with the sheer joy and happiness of it all." However difficult their circumstances, Canada's migrant workers always having something to look forward to: home.

An Unregulated Can of Worms

MARIA ALEMAN and Norma Munoz were sure of one thing when they signed up to pick worms in Canada this spring. Although gruelling work, it would pay more than they were earning in Mexico. The $8 an hour was roughly twice what Munoz pulled in as a visual inspector in an auto plant, and three times what Aleman made as a farm worker. Hired by Joseph Haupert, owner of Mississauga, Ont.-based National Bait Inc., under a federal pilot program intended to fill low-skill vacancies in industries such as hospitality and construction, the women and 38 other Mexicans were digging the evening after they arrived. By the following week, things had already started to unravel.

First, a number of workers objected to increased quotas and the lack of water and latrines in the fields. Then Haupert, who counters that pickers were deliberately producing under quota, bringing in fewer than the 10 cans of worms a shift that he needs to break even, fired eight men and sent them back to Mexico. Within weeks, similar disputes led to a further 18 dismissals and resignations, including the firings of Aleman and Munoz. Instead of boarding the plane, however, they and a third woman who did not wish to be interviewed moved into the migrant workers centre in Leamington, Ont., where they have spent the summer publicizing the plight of Canada's guest workers. (By early September, none of the original 40 was still on the job.)

The pilot project, which brought in 3,900 workers in this, its second year, resembles the seasonal agricultural workers program in many respects. But, unlike the SAWP, its recruitment process is unregulated. "That opens the door to problems," says University of Guelph sociologist Kerry Preibisch, pointing south of the border, where some private labour contractors extort bribes from workers in exchange for placements and blacklist anyone who tries to unionize. There's also a danger, Preibisch says, that "employers will search the globe for the poorest, most politically oppressed people" - those who are so desperate they'll accept any conditions.

Aleman, 32, and Munoz, 36, clearly aren't desperate. And however disappointed they may be to return to their families with less money than they'd anticipated - the United Food and Commercial Workers have raised funds to pay their airfare home and some extra expenses - they are happy to have taken a stand. This is at least "a beginning," says Munoz, "The employers don't even see us as human beings but as things to put to work." They came here to work, she adds, "but not under these conditions."

See also IMMIGRANT LABOUR.

Maclean's October 11, 2004