Migrant farm workers return to Canada because they want to, grower says
By Patrick Meagher
LYNDEN — Rocky retired about four years ago after working for 35 years on Ken Forth’s Western Ontario broccoli farm. He was 66. He would have come back to Canada for another season, except health issues forced him into retirement. He now collects Canada Pension Plan monthly payments from his home in Jamaica.
When Ken Forth went to Jamaica a few years ago he paid Rocky a visit, a four-hour drive into the mountains. They sat on the front porch and talked about their years together on the farm and life on this small Caribbean island. Based on his earnings in Canada, Rocky was able to pay for his four kids to go to high school, for three of them to get a university degree and for the fourth to be trained as a licensed plumber. He thanked Ken for the job opportunity that allowed him to build a house, raise a family and educate his kids. It was a moment of reflection filled with gratitude and pride.
Rocky’s story is not uncommon. Many foreign workers on Canadian farmers return to Canada year after year, decade after decade. Yet a Japanese “human-rights” UN special rapporteur just spent 14 days in Canada and lambasted the country as a breeding ground for modern slavery. Said Tomoya Obokata: “Employer-specific work permit regimes, including certain Temporary Foreign Worker Programmes, make migrant workers vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery, as they cannot report abuses without fear of deportation.”
Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English-speaking section added that “Canada has work to do to ensure we … eliminate modern forms of slavery.” Farmers Forum requested a copy of the report upon which the allegations are based and was told by the office of the high commissioner of human rights for the United Nations that the report will not be published until August, 2024, prior to presentation to the Human Rights Council.
The rapporteur did not distinguish which industries are more subject to abuse, nor did he provide evidence to back up the serious charges. Of interest, there is an ongoing court case in Barrie, Ontario, of human trafficking involving a Mexican family in Canada running a hotel and office cleaning business in which they hired 40 Mexicans, who are now testifying against them.
But once again agriculture gets dragged through the mud. News websites, such as CBC, posted a photo of farm labourers to go with their story on the rapporteur’s allegations in a UN press release. It was too much for the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association labour section chair and grape grower Bill George, who said, “We recognize there is always more that can be done to ensure all workers have the opportunity for a positive and safe working experience while they are here, but assigning hateful and broad labels to all the hardworking farmers and their employees in the program is not the solution.”
One Canadian activist group was so vitriolic in condemning the foreign worker program that the Jamaican government sent a seven-member team that included independent observers and members from both major political parties, to investigate Canadian farms. The investigating team interviewed more than 100 farm workers and their report earlier this year found that the majority of workers were either “satisfied” or “happy” with their conditions on the farm.
Most of the province’s 25,000 foreign farm workers are processed through paper work completed by Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services. Ken Forth runs that program and says the average farm employer of foreign labour hires about 15 workers each year. He said the slavery argument doesn’t make sense.
“If the program is so damned bad why do these guys keep coming back year after year? Why does the Canadian government allow it?” he asked. Forth has been running the program for more than 30 years. “If It thought it was that bad, I wouldn’t waste my time.”
On his farm he says he has many workers who have returned to Canada for more than 20 years.
The UN report argued that migrant workers are not allowed to switch employers and are forced to work long hours. But Forth points out that the Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker Program includes a program that allows employees to switch farms through the season. The hours are often longer but that’s what workers want, he said. All farmers work more than eight hours and foreign workers want to work as much as they can to return home with as much money as they can, he said.
The workers get good benefits. Farmers must pay for the workers flight to and from their home country, as well as put them up in free housing, and pay the employer portion of Employment Insurance, Canada Pension Plan and Workers’ Safety Insurance Board fees. The workers also get OHIP coverage. The on-farm housing is inspected by local health authorities every eight months and the Ministry of Labour inspects at least once every two years. Workers only need to pay for their food, which means they can save a substantial amount of money in one season.
Forth added that a worker treated badly won’t be productive and will quit. Those who point out that the work is hard don’t like physical labour, he said. “There are people who like physical work. I like physical work. I was brought up the cattle industry. There’s a lot of physical work.”
One Mexican worker on an Ontario farm is now 73. He has been coming back to Canada for decades, Forth said. “He wants to come back.”