By Connor Lynch
OTTAWA — An organization seeking justice for migrant workers has captured a lot of media attention for its gripes against a 50-year-old program that employs 18,000 workers in Ontario each year. The problem with their concerns, says a farm employers’ group, is that they’re a smokescreen for the activists’ real goal of simply destroying these programs. The group’s mandate includes fighting capitalism.
Justicia for Migrant Workers says that the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) suffers from four systemic flaws: No worker access to permanent immigration status; injured workers get sent home; work permits tie employees to one employer; and the program makes workers vulnerable to abuse.
But not even the Jamaican government shares these concerns, telling the House of Commons committee that the agricultural worker program “provides many cultural and financial benefits and does not need to be reformed.”
Here’s what’s wrong with the activists’ concerns, according to Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS).
1. On barriers to permanent immigration status:
Typically, anyone can apply for permanent status but not everyone likes Canada in January. “Canadians are egomaniacs if they think everyone wants to be Canadian,” said Ken Forth, president of FARMS, a third-party organization that handles the logistics of the agricultural worker program. Most workers come from Jamaica and Mexico.
Forth employs 18 Jamaicans and has been bringing up workers for his broccoli farm, near Woodstock, through the program for 46 years. He said he’s asked his workers before if they’d like to live in Canada.
“If I wanted to live in Canada, I would’ve run away (from your farm) 30 years ago,” one worker told him. “I work here six months. I make enough to go home and educate my kids and build a nicer house. And I’m with my family for six months and I’m not here in the damn cold.”
A worker who wants permanent status can go through an immigration office, said Forth.
“The fact is that the ag stream has no pathway to permanency. I don’t think it’s a real issue. If someone wants to change the immigration laws that’s fine, but don’t blame the farmer.”
2. On injured migrant workers sent home against their will
That’s not true, Forth said. The workers are entitled to OHIP to the end of their contract and, in some cases, beyond. However, most workers don’t want to stay in Canada away from their families if they can’t work and are simply hanging around due to an injury.
“Say, a guy picking apples breaks his leg,” Forth said. “It might take 8 to 12 weeks to heal, but there’s only 3 weeks of work left. If he’s fine to travel, he’ll still get a cheque but he can go home. There’s no point to him sitting around here if he can’t go back to work until next season.”
3. Work permits tie a worker to one employer
Contracts among Canadians in other countries work in the same way. Why should foreign workers get special treatment? Noted Forth: “If I have to give this man free housing, pay for his (return) air fare up front, and he can work for somebody else? It doesn’t work. Why as a farmer would I do that? It’s not a rational principle. If that ever happened, the program is over.”
He added: “It’s no different than a hockey player having a one-season contract and then he’s a free agent.”
4. On workers vulnerable to abuse
The worker program includes a government liaison officer that workers can contact if there is an issue with the employer or living conditions, not to mention regulatory oversight and a yearly review of the program.
“If it’s not a problem with the worker, the agent will try to place that worker on another farm,” Forth said. He added that “Every farm house has to be inspected by the local Ministry of Health,” adding that he’d spent $50,000 this year on renovations to the housing he provides for his workers.
He added that it’s not in a farmer’s interest to treat a worker badly. “I’ve never seen a group where you went in and intimidated them and abused them and didn’t pay them and got any productivity at all.”
Forth added that a farmer looking to bring in workers also needs an approval certificate from the local office of the Ministry of Health. “If there is substandard housing, the guy should be off the program,” Forth said. “But they still have to have a certificate, and I don’t know a bureaucrat who’ll put his job on the line to let a house pass.”
But as far as Forth is concerned, the real goal of the activists isn’t to reform the programs. The goal is to destroy them.
“And when they get that done, I guess they can beat their chest and break out the champagne and be proud they put 150,000 people in developing nations into poverty, not to mention the fact that the fruit and vegetable industry would almost evaporate in Canada.
“They’re toying with something they shouldn’t be: (their) livelihood and mine.”