Fruit and vegetable growers respond to UN rapporteur comments on temporary foreign worker programs
GUELPH – Ontario’s fruit and vegetable growers are pushing back against recent comments linking Canada’s temporary foreign worker programs to slavery. The statements were made recently by Tomoya Obokala, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, as he ended a two week visit to Canada.
“Seasonal and temporary foreign workers are an essential part of local fruit and vegetable production in Ontario, and we do not support employers who mistreat or otherwise take advantage of people in their employ,” says Bill George, a grape grower and Chair of the OFVGA Labour Section. “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.”
Every year, Ontario fruit and vegetable growers employ approximately 20,000 seasonal and temporary foreign workers who come to Canada legally through the government regulated Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program’s agricultural stream.
Workers apply in their home countries for the opportunity to be part of these programs in Canada and sign legal contracts when accepting employment. All contracts are subject to federal government audits and inspections to ensure they follow program regulations and match the job specifications that the employer received government approval for when workers were hired. SAWP contract terms also reflect decades of collaborative negotiations between Canada and the workers’ home countries, which include Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, and the Eastern Caribbean Islands.
Canadian farmers who employ migrant farm workers under either of these two government programs have the same and, in some cases, higher obligations to their temporary foreign workers as they do for their Canadian employees, including government-approved wage rates, access to health care such as OHIP in Ontario, Employment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan as well as workplace insurance coverage and safety protection. Farms are also required to provide every worker with a copy of the federal government’s publication outlining workers’ rights and protections to ensure they are aware of their rights.
To ensure these requirements are being followed in practice, farms are subject to frequent federal, provincial, and in many cases, foreign government compliance inspections.
Workers with SAWP or TFW program permits have access to a multilingual, 24/7 federal government support line they can use to raise concerns and seek help relating to their current employment. For SAWP workers, local liaison officers from their home countries are also available to provide support and address complaints related to their employment in Canada. If workers are unable to have their specific employment-related concerns resolved through these channels, an open work permit program is available for vulnerable workers in these situations.
Earlier this year, the government of Jamaica released a fact-finding report that found a large proportion of Jamaican farm workers have a positive view of SAWP, and the vast majority of Ontario farm employers using the program are operating within its legal parameters. The report also categorically stated that no evidence was found to support claims that the program’s working conditions were akin to systemic slavery, dramatic allegations that triggered the independent Jamaican government investigation last year.
“Federal government statistics show that Canada’s agriculture sector has above-average employer compliance rates compared to other industries and sectors that use Canada’s government-approved temporary and seasonal worker programs,” adds George. “Compliance rates for Ontario farmers are particularly high, which is a testament to investments growers have made into worker safety, protection and well-being in recent years.”
Through its More than a Migrant Worker initiative, the OFVGA has been giving a voice to the many thousands of seasonal and temporary farm workers in Ontario who take pride in the work they do here by letting them tell their stories in their own words, while also drawing attention to the critical role that legal international farm workers play in the Canadian food system and efforts by farmers and government in recent years to invest in worker safety, protection and well-being.
The Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association is the voice of Ontario’s fruit and vegetable producers on issues affecting the horticulture sector.