Migrant agricultural workers in Canada

Ralston White and Paul Roach, both migrant workers from Jamaica working on an Ontario apple farm, died from inhaling toxic fumes recently. Although an investigation is still underway, the deaths bring light to the situations of migrant farm workers all over Canada.

Over 18,000 migrant workers make their way to Canada each year through the Government of Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). The majority of seasonal workers coming to Canada through this program are from Jamaica. This program began in the 1960s, and now approximately 10,000 Jamaican workers come to Canada to temporarily work on farms. In the 1970s, Mexican workers began coming to Canada to work on farms as well, and now migrant workers also come to Canada from the Philippines, Trinidad and Guatemala.

With the SAWP program, employers must pay for employees’ airfare to and from Canada, provide free housing to workers, provide workers with health insurance and provide a detailed contract pertaining to wages and working hours. Workers can stay in Canada to work for a maximum of eight months. Clearly, this is all looks very good on paper.

However, the problem lies in the actual conditions that many of the migrant agricultural workers face when they get to Canada. Living in cramped housing, working in inclement weather and dealing with chemicals are just some of the obvious problems that workers face. The other issues are much more subtle. Like geographical isolation — without a mode of transportation, many workers are stuck on the farms they work at as the nearest town can be far away. This makes it difficult to complain about working conditions and prevents workers from contacting their families back home. Language barriers, which can hinder communication with employers, is another form of isolation. And let’s not forget racism.

Given the reality of many of these conditions, it is hard not to picture this as a modern form of capitalist oppression in our own backyards. Just because we are not confronted with injustices that migrant workers can face every day, it does not mean that it is not happening, or that we are not benefiting from it. We are the ones eating the food that these migrant workers help produce. In fact, the farm that White and Roach died on was an organic farm. Usually the term organic conjures up images of food that carefully grown and cultivated, which make the deaths of the migrant workers on that farm even more shocking.

There is a march called the “Pilgrimage to Freedom: Breaking the Chains of Indentureship” which is being organized in Ontario by Judicia for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group that fights for the rights and dignity of all migrant workers. The march will take place over the Thanksgiving weekend to call attention to where our food comes from and the situations of people who helped produce it.

This is an important message from Judicia for Migrant Workers, as the geographical isolation of these agricultural workers on Canada’s farms serves to mask possible human rights violations. Although there are farms that treat migrant workers equitably, we are all implicated when unjust working conditions for migrant workers are surrounded by silence.

Noreen Mae Ritsema is the Features Editor for the Manitoban.