SAWP ‘a really good program’ that ‘works for both sides,’ Ken Forth says
OTTAWA — Disgruntled foreign farm workers are seeking $500 million in damages from the federal government because they can’t collect Employment Insurance and are “tied” to the individual farms that bring them to Canada.
Plaintiffs in the proposed class action lawsuit complain that they are ineligible for EI, despite paying into the system, and — more controversially — they allege that Canada’s farm-specific work permits are “motivated by overtly racist policy objectives” underlying the 58-year-old Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), according to the recent statement of claim filed in Ontario Superior Court on behalf of all program participants over the last 15 years.
Farm workers allowed into the country prior to the program’s 1966 introduction were free to work where they wanted because those workers were European, according to the claim filed by the two primary claimants’ lawyers at Goldblatt Associates. “With the advent of the SAWP, Black and Indo Caribbean farmworkers were finally admitted to Canada, but were subjected to restrictive conditions of employment, including tied employment (and forced residency at their employer’s premises).”
Beyond the racism charge, the damage figure is largely based on $472 million in EI contributions collected from the involved workers and their employers since 2008.
Ken Forth, a southwestern Ontario broccoli producer and former chair of the Labour Section of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, dismissed the latest bout of bad press triggered by critics of the SAWP.
“It’s a really good program. There’s nothing sinister going on. The majority are good people on all sides that make this thing work,” Forth told Farmers Forum.
Forth conceded that foreign farm workers can’t get EI once they return to their home countries at the end of the season, though there are circumstances where they can and do collect while still in Canada. He raised the example of a worker who suddenly comes down with a sickness or health condition that prevents them from working during the season.
He agreed a potential compromise would be to exempt foreign farmworkers and their employers from EI deductions. But he doubted the government would ever agree to that potentially complicated tax change. “I would be terribly afraid to ask (for such an exemption),” he added, “because if you ask, they might say the easy thing to do is cancel the (SAWP) program altogether.”
Forth also pointed out that there are residents of Canada who pay into EI but are ineligible to collect when others can. They may live in a region with a higher minimum number of work hours to qualify for EI because of a lower unemployment rate.
He wondered what the farm workers are being told about how the EI system actually works in Canada. “Are they saying they should be able to get EI until the following summer when they go back to work again? That’s not the way the system works. You don’t collect EI for the rest of your life.”
As for the reputed unfairness of having to work on a particular farm, Forth explained that it’s a contractual agreement benefiting the worker and farmer alike. The worker gets the security of guaranteed hours per week and usually wants the longest contract period possible — about 8 months — permitted under the program. The farmer — who pays to transport and house the workers — benefits from a stable workforce. “You can understand what would happen if we had people coming and going at our farms all the time, where we had 20 people show up today and two people tomorrow,” he said.
“The farmer needs some reassurance that he’s not going to spend $1 million to plant a crop and then have everybody evacuate,” he said. “What do these people want? The ability to work at General Motors for $40 per hour?”
Workers who find themselves in the rare circumstance of being abused at a farm “are under no obligation to stay there,” Forth added. They can be moved to another farm if they complain to their home country’s liaison service or consulate, he said.
Workers would have no security without the seasonal contracts offered through SAWP, he added. Farmers could fire them at will, or a worker lured away to another farm might find out “the grass ain’t so green on the other side” after a couple of weeks. “Then where are they? They’ve left their first employer, and now their second employer has promised something that isn’t true, and they’re sitting here in a foreign country.”
Previous generations of farm workers did come to Canada from Europe, but they arrived as immigrants after the Second World War, not temporary workers under contract, he said, dismissing the effort to draw a race-based distinction.
However, he suggested that SAWP participants should be granted an expedited opportunity to immigrate to Canada after several years of seasonal farm labour. “Those people would make damned good Canadians because they’ve got the willingness to work” and are familiar with Canada, he said. In Forth’s estimation, they should “go to the top” of Canada’s lengthy immigration queue if they apply after, say, five years in the program.