The Returns of Labour
An overcast autumn sky stretches above a lonely street in downtown Langley on a quiet Sunday afternoon. A group of men emerges seemingly out of nowhere and walks into the Santa Rosa Latin Market. Some of the men appear to recognize the woman working in the store, and briefly exchange greetings with her in Spanish. They line up to pay for corn tortillas, canned chipotle peppers, and other products from Mexico—the country where their families await their return. Here in the large greenhouses and rainy fields of the Fraser Valley, they are farm workers, coming and going as the seasons turn. It is mid-November, and in Canada, many migrant farm workers are eager to go home. They will come back next spring for the new growing season.
Every year thousands of agricultural workers leave their families in Mexico and travel north to work in Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). Started in 1966, the SAWP is authorized by Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC) and Service Canada, and aims at addressing the labour shortage within the Canadian agricultural sector. Mexico joined the program in 1974, and most agricultural migrant workers in Canada currently come from Mexico and a number of Caribbean states. According to the Embassy of Mexico in Canada, more than 17,600 Mexican agricultural labourers worked in Canada during 2012. Although the wages they earn are low, for many workers this rate still represents a significant improvement over the financial reality they face at home. Dreaming of a better life, many return to work in Canada each year, despite their lack of opportunity to ever attain residency status.
Outside the little Latin market in Langley, Antonio and Martín (seasonal Mexican workers) wait for the other members of their group to come out. As they stand shivering in the cold, damp wind, they talk about their experiences working here. “It is as everything,” they agree, “sometimes the employer is good, sometimes it is bad.” Martín has been coming back for 11 consecutive years, and Antonio for 13. They both worked nine years in Ontario, spending the rest of the time in B.C.
Mexican farm workers are hired by Canadian employers under a temporary work contract, which is authorized by HRSDC and overseen by an agent of the government of Mexico. The contract specifies that workers should not work more than eight hours a day and should get a day off for every six days of work. However, if the urgency of the work requires it, workers can agree to extend their hours up to a maximum of 12 hours per day. For workers like Antonio and Martín, workdays can range in length from 12 to 16 hours depending on the time of the year. The Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training and Responsible for Labour states that farm workers in B.C. are not entitled to overtime pay and are excluded from statutory holiday entitlements.
Martín and Antonio explain that the employer has an obligation to provide them with housing, which is in good condition and has all the basic services. While Martín does recall having stayed in houses where the rooms were separated by walls, for the moment the room where he and another worker sleep is not separated from the kitchen, which all of his roommates also use.
“If you are looking for a story, I have a long one to tell,” warns Antonio, lifting his hand to show a scar where two of his fingers used to be. He recalls that while working with a big packing machine one morning, he slipped on an onion skin. As he fell, the machine caught his gloved hand. No one from his family was able to come after the accident. In Mexico, for the family members of migrant workers, getting visas can be difficult, and the trip from Mexico to Canada is expensive.
The work that temporary agricultural workers are hired to do is hard and often dangerous. Not only are there occupational hazards related to the operation of machinery and heavy equipment, but to the handling and application of pesticides and other potentially harmful products as well. A petition filed by West Coast Environmental Law (an environmental law organization in B.C.) before the Office of the Auditor General of Canada, states that “a 2010 report on Farmworker Health and Safety funded by WorksafeBC, noted that farm workers frequently lack protective gear for applying pesticides, [sometimes] receive inadequate training from farm contractors, and are reluctant to report pesticide exposure incidents or violations of pesticide usage instructions, due to job insecurity and inadequate access to health care.”
Saleem Spindari, manager of community outreach and advocacy at Mosaic (a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing issues that affect immigrants and refugees in Canada), says that because there are many health risk factors in the employment of agricultural migrant workers, the employers and the sending countries share responsibility for providing workers with instruction on safe work practices. Many of the workers, however, continue to be uninformed about their rights and the services that are accessible to them. Members of the Migrant Farm Worker Ministry at St. Luke’s Parish in Maple Ridge, recount the time a migrant farm worker asked a ministry volunteer if someone could take him to a store to buy Krazy Glue. When the volunteer asked why he needed glue, the migrant worker pulled out a piece of one of his teeth, which had broken off at work, and said that he was told that Krazy Glue would work.
Spindari says that there is very little in terms of services that migrant agricultural workers are eligible for. Most of the programs available to them in B.C. are provided by grassroots and non-profit organizations, as well as by some churches.
“B.C. had at one time the best labour and employment standard laws and protections for farm workers in the country and almost across North America.”
Stan Raper, national coordinator for the Agricultural Workers Alliance, says that “B.C. had at one time the best labour and employment standard laws and protections for farm workers in the country and almost across North America.” But he adds, “[With] the expansion of the corporate farming model in B.C., what we are seeing is a deterioration not only of the laws, but of the enforcement of the minimal laws that are there.”
He emphasizes that one of the big challenges faced by agricultural migrant workers is that their work permits are assigned to an individual employer, which allows them zero mobility. Also, a Library of Parliament Background Paper from February 2013 recognizes that “holding a temporary (work) visa may in itself influence workers’ perceptions of their rights and entitlements.” Spindari says that many workers are not informed that they are eligible for Canada Pension Plan benefits after having paid premiums for many years. He adds that receiving Employment Insurance is extremely difficult for them. In order to qualify, they must first be willing and available to work. However, if migrant workers are laid off, they are unavailable to work because, according to the conditions of their work permit, they are not allowed to seek other employment during the time that they are in Canada.
Part of the problem, according to Raper, is that there are no national standards for the employment conditions of agricultural workers in Canada. Each province has its own labour laws. “Some are not bad, some are absolutely horrible,” he says. Manitoba, for instance, gives farm workers full coverage under the Employment Standards Act, the right to unionize, and inclusion under the provincial health program (eliminating the need for these workers to pay premiums to a private insurer). Whereas Alberta does not have occupational health and safety laws for farm workers.
Raper argues that there has to be a better way. “Our immigration system should be looking at farm workers in the same way that it looks at live-in caregivers, where after a couple of years they’re eligible for a path to [residency]. Those avenues just aren’t there with the SAWP,” he says. Spindari agrees. He makes the point that Canada needs agricultural workers on a regular basis, and uses these men when they have the strength and physical ability to work. For the workers, however, the employment comes at the expense of seeing their children grow. “Can you imagine taking someone from their family for eight months every year?” he asks.
One aspect of the program that has yet to be studied is the social impact of separating migrant workers from their families year after year. According to Raper, the workers’ feelings of isolation can lead to problems of depression and contribute to alcoholism. “We feel isolated since we left our homes,” says Martín.
The workers that gathered outside the little Latin market in Langley last November have long since departed. The winter months have slowly passed. From an open, blue sky, the sun shines above the Fraser Valley, and the songs of birds announce the beginning of a new season. In the fields, the earth is warm and ready to hold seeds. Many of the hands that will sow and tend them are soon due to arrive. In Mexico, farm workers say goodbye to their loved ones. The time has come again; soon, they must depart to work in faraway northern lands.