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Migrant farm workers deserve better from Canada

It's harvest season and our stores and farmers' markets are bursting with the Earth's bounty. It's the best time to crunch into local apples and slice ripe tomatoes – and to reflect on the people who grew them. Especially because 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which brings 30,000 labourers annually from Mexico, Jamaica and other Caribbean countries to reap and sow our crops.

SAWP, as its known, is a cornerstone of Canadian food. The Greenhouse Canada website last spring quoted an Ontario greenhouse owner, Anthony Cervini, as saying that SAWP is "the lifeblood of our industry." A recent item on a Dutch farming website, Hortibiz, agreed, noting: "Migrant workers have proven to be a vital part of every growing season in Ontario, as they commit months of their time each year to help farmers around the clock."

Related: I was bumped from speaking to the House. I need to say this: Migrant workers need better rights

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Read more: Everything you need to know about temporary foreign workers

Yes, around the clock. Farm labourers in Ontario, including SAWP migrants, are exempt from labour laws that govern minimum wage, overtime and rest periods.

That's not the only troubling thing about SAWP, which brings in workers on eight-month contracts and allows them to return to Canada annually, but does not permit family members to accompany them. Other farm workers come via the agricultural stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker program, which allows migrants to stay in Canada for up to four years, then requires them to leave for at least two years, meaning they have to abandon their housing and social ties.

Both programs require workers to stay with one employer. Neither gives workers immigrant status, or a path to Canadian citizenship.

"For 50 years, the SAWP has been framed as being used to meet acute labour shortage in periods we need more workers, but it's actually meeting a long-term labour demand," Jenna Hennebry, director of the International Migrant Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University, told me.

In its first year, SAWP brought in 63 migrants from Jamaica. Now, about 17,000 farm labourers come annually to Ontario alone, and Dr. Hennebry said the average SAWP migrant now comes here for 10 years in a row.

"These workers live in conditions most Canadians would not accept, often with no access to phone or transportation," she added. In July, 32 workers lost all of their possessions when the Brant County barn in which they lived burned down. This summer, a reporter for The Globe saw a farm workers' dorm where 150 people slept in one open-air barracks.

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Although SAWP workers are entitled to provincial health insurance when they arrive, those who are injured are often "medically repatriated" to their home country. In 2014, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that 787 migrant farm workers were medically repatriated between 2001 and 2011. These workers also pay employment insurance and pension-plan premiums, as well as income tax.

On Sept. 1, the activist group Justicia for Migrant Workers kicked off "Harvesting Freedom," a farm labourers' march through Southern Ontario that is to end in Ottawa on Oct. 3. Its demand is that migrant workers be given landed immigrant status as soon as they arrive.

"Permanent residency on arrival has challenges, but there's no reason there can't be an avenue," said Dr. Hennebry, who is to speak at a Sept. 19 Harvesting Freedom event in Waterloo. She has previously shared her views with the House of Commons and the Senate, and recently addressed a UN forum in Geneva on migration and development.

She believes that the lack of a path to citizenship for migrant workers is tarnishing Canada's image. Similar programs elsewhere let workers apply for residency after a given time period. This includes Britain and Spain, which also lets migrants bring their families along during work periods.

In the Greenhouse Canada article, Mr. Cervini called SAWP a "win-win" because agricultural companies get workers, and migrants earn money to send home. Dr. Hennebry estimates that amounts, on average, to about $9,900 a worker each year.

Mr. Cervini went on to say that he enjoyed getting to know the migrants, especially one worker who had been returning to one of his greenhouses for 27 years. For nearly three decades, then, a person who laboured to produce Canadian food had spent two-thirds of the year away from home, in a situation that affords no possibility of citizenship, no pension and no guarantee of health care here after an injury.

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In this season of abundance, Canada should do better than that.

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About the Author
Journalist and editor

Denise Balkissoon is an editor in the Globe’s Life section and a columnist in Comment. The National Magazine Award-winning writer is also a co-founder of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity in the Greater Toronto Area. More

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