By Melodie McCullough
When Gabriel Allahdua found out he was coming to Canada, he couldn’t believe his good luck.
But shortly after arriving, the reality of life as a migrant farm worker in Ontario changed his mind.
“I had high expectations of Canada, so high. It was an opportunity for me, and it meant a lot to me. Only when I got here, my expectations were dashed,” said Allahdua, 45, who is an organizer with the Migrant Workers’ Alliance for Change (MWAC), a coalition of national migrant worker groups and allies working for justice.
He came to Canada four years ago from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia and began working in the greenhouse production of tomatoes and organic vegetables in Leamington, Ontario.
This week (Dec. 13, 2016) the 4-in-4-out rule, which required migrant workers to leave after four years of cumulative employment and banned them from returning for four years, was repealed by the federal government, following extensive campaigns by advocacy groups.
Now, one of the main objectives of Allahdua and others is to obtain permanent immigration status for Canadian migrant workers.
“Being on the farm is exploitation in so many ways,” he said. “Right now there are difficult working conditions that you would never associate with Canada. If you have no status and no rights, you are precarious and you are being taken advantage of and exploited. Status would mean decent work, better conditions, and being treated like any other Canadian worker.”
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the government-run Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Program. Most migrant farm workers come from impoverished rural communities in Mexico and the Caribbean, states the website of Justicia for Migrant Workers (JM4W). It says in the last 10 years, the Canadian government has added and expanded the Temporary Foreign Workers’ Program, allowing agricultural growers to hire workers from other countries such as Thailand, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia and China “to perform work for wages that Canadians prefer not to accept” — sometimes dangerous and difficult work, yet they are denied permanent immigration status.
“We come to Canada to do jobs that Canadians don’t want to do. We call on Canadian society, as a whole, to support us.”
Allahdula’s story is similar to many others. As a young man in St. Lucia, there were limited opportunities for schooling, but with the help of funding from Canada, he was able to finish secondary school. It gave him a second chance, he said, and he was very grateful.
“I thought highly of Canada. We learned about it in school and saw it as a world leader.”
He was self-employed for many years in St. Lucia, owning a convenience store and working as a honey and greenhouse producer. But Hurricane Tomas in 2010 destroyed everything, he said. He was left without work and two children, now in their teens, to support.
“Canada,” he points out, “contributes so much to climate change, but we are the ones it affects.”
He shared the following example of the working conditions and threats of deportation he has experienced on farms in Ontario:
Every work activity was clocked, from start to finish. At the end of the week, a list was posted showing each worker’s output. The supervisor says to the one on the bottom of the list, ‘You’re not meeting the company’s expectations. You should try harder to get to the top, because there are plenty of people back home wanting to come here’. Every day the two lowest people on the list were punished the following day by being sent to the bunk house — and losing a day’s pay.
“Migrant agricultural workers can only work for one employer listed on their permits,” explains the MWAC website. “Their families can’t visit them and they often don’t get minimum wage. They can be sent home whenever their bosses feel like it. Many of them work six days a week, sometimes over 10 hours a day doing backbreaking work. They don’t get overtime. Worst of all, though they come year after year to grow our food, they can’t live here permanently.”
The Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights Canada is calling for:
- regulatory changes to make it easier for migrant workers to move between jobs, specifically transition from tied work permits to open work permits and removal of limits on work permits
- permanent resident immigration status upon arrival for migrant workers.
And the MWAC is calling for:
A RIGHT TO LANDING STATUS granted upon arrival for migrant workers. They must not be tied to one employer, be required to live in their employer’s home, or be subject to further medical examination;
A RIGHT TO EQUAL ACCESS for all social programs, including Employment Insurance, health care, settlement services, social services and Workers’ Compensation;
A RIGHT TO A FAIR APPEAL PROCESS for migrant workers prior to a pre-removal order, and a stop to deportations until this process is in place;
A RIGHT TO FULL PROTECTION UNDER THE PROVINCIAL EMPLOYMENT STANDARDS ACT AND REGULATIONS currently enjoyed by Canadian Citizens and Permanent Residents, including NO FEES for any work placement.
Immediate implementation of a NATIONAL REGULARIZATION PROGRAM granting permanent immigration status for all non-residents living in Canada.
These changes would not only benefit migrant workers, but the Canadian economy, as well. A recent report by the Conference Board of Canada says labour shortages of agricultural workers have doubled over the past decade and are expected to double again by 2025. The agricultural sector relies heavily on temporary foreign workers, it says, and recommends easier access to permanent residency for migrant farm workers.
“The root of our problems is the government system,” concludes Allahdua. “We come to Canada to do jobs that Canadians don’t want to do. We call on Canadian society, as a whole, to support us.”