Montreal, Canada – Jamaican agricultural workers say they face conditions akin to “systematic slavery” on Canadian farms, as they call on Jamaica to address systemic problems in a decades-old, migrant labour programme in Canada.
In a letter sent to Jamaica’s minister of labour and social security earlier this month, workers affiliated with rights group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) said they have been “treated like mules” on two farms in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province.
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“We are treated like mules and punished for not working fast enough. We are exposed to dangerous pesticides without proper protection, and our bosses are verbally abusive, swearing at us. They physically intimidate us, destroy our personal property, and threaten to send us home,” reads the letter, first reported on by Jamaican and Canadian news outlets and shared with Al Jazeera.
The workers – who were not named for fear of retribution – are employed under what’s known as the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), which allows Canadian employers to hire temporary migrant workers from Mexico and 11 countries in the Caribbean to fill gaps in the country’s agricultural labour market.
Foreign workers brought to Canada through SAWP can have jobs for up to eight months in the year, and many people have been coming to the country for decades under the scheme. (Workers from other countries can come to Canada through other temporary, migrant labour programmes.)
“As it currently stands, [SAWP] is systematic slavery,” the Jamaican farmworkers said in their letter, which came just days before the country’s Labour Minister Karl Samuda came to Canada to tour farms employing workers from Jamaica.
“We work for eight months on minimum wage and can’t survive for the four months back home. The SAWP is exploitation at a seismic level. Employers treat us like we don’t have any feelings, like we’re not human beings. We are robots to them. They don’t care about us.”
Between 50,000 and 60,000 foreign agricultural labourers come to Canada each year on temporary permits to work in a range of sectors, from the planting and harvesting of fruits and vegetables, to meat processing. Canada exported more than $63.3bn ($82.2bn Canadian) in agriculture and food products in 2021 – making it the fifth-largest exporter of agri-food in the world.
Yet foreign workers say they are forced to live in crowded, substandard housing (PDF); to work long hours in unsafe conditions; to receive unfair wages; and to face being deported or barred from coming back to Canada for the next season if they raise concerns with their employers.
Syed Hussan, executive director of the MWAC rights group, said these workers are tied to their employers, which means they are effectively not allowed to work for anyone else in Canada. “It is incredibly difficult if not impossible to assert any rights at work as a result of this,” he told Al Jazeera. “So people … have to accept conditions of abuse and violence leading to even death because of the immense power imbalance between them and their employers.”
Hussan said MWAC has documented the deaths of at least three agricultural workers this month, while 12 have died over the past year. Al Jazeera could not independently verify those figures. But against that backdrop, Hussan said the Jamaican farmworkers’ letter is “incredibly courageous”.
“It shows that not only are migrants facing abuse and violence and death, but they’re also organising and fighting back in organisations like ours and taking risks because it is imperative,” he said, adding, however, that neither the Canadian or Jamaican governments have responded to MWAC or the workers.
Contacted for comment about the letter, the office of Canada’s Minister of Employment Carla Qualtrough told Al Jazeera in an email that “the mistreatment or abuse of temporary foreign workers is unacceptable” and that federal officials “are in communication with the provincial government, who oversees investigations into workplace complaints, on this matter”.
Qualtrough’s office also said Ottawa – which in 2021 set aside $38.1m ($49.5m Canadian) over three years to boost support for migrant workers – is trying to improve the programme and ensure workers are protected. “In the last year, we have strengthened the workplace inspection process, expanded the TFW [temporary foreign worker] tip line to provide services in multiple languages, and are increasing support for migrant worker organizations,” it said, among other things.
In their letter, the farmworkers had called on Samuda, Jamaica’s labour minister, to push Canada to implement national housing standards, create an anonymous system to report abuse without the threat of retribution, make it easier to change employers, and allow the workers to represent themselves in contract negotiations, among other measures. They also demanded the Canadian government grant them permanent residency upon arrival in the country.
The Jamaican Ministry of Labour and Social Security did not respond to Al Jazeera’s emailed requests for comment on the letter and Samuda’s visit to Canadian farms in mid-August.
In a statement on August 16, the ministry expressed “deep sadness” at the death of 57-year-old Garvin Yapp, a Jamaican farmworker who had participated in SAWP for 35 years. “Circumstances surrounding his death are still being investigated, however, preliminary reports are that on August 14, he was involved in a work-related accident and was pronounced dead on site,” it said.
But Hussan at MWAC said the problems raised by the Jamaican farmworkers go beyond a few bad employers – and that is why his group and others have been calling on Canada to grant permanent residency to all foreign and undocumented workers to help them better assert their rights.
“People are simply not able to protect themselves and they face an enormous amount of reprisals – and only giving them full and permanent immigration status will fix this,” he said.
In May, Canada’s parliament unanimously passed the M-44 motion asking the government to draft and release within 120 days “a comprehensive plan … to expand pathways to permanent residency for temporary foreign workers”. “This motion would address some of these vulnerabilities faced by temporary foreign workers by giving them more access to resources, safeguards and pathways to [permanent residency] for their contribution to our country,” Randeep Sarai, the Liberal MP who tabled M-44, said at the time.
Asked if Canada planned to give foreign workers in the country under SAWP a path to permanent residency, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said the federal minister has a mandate to find ways to expand pathways to permanent residence to foreign workers and international students.
“Tens of thousands of temporary workers transition to permanent status each year. For instance, of the 406,000 foreign nationals who became permanent residents in 2021, nearly 169,000 of them transitioned from worker status,” IRCC spokesman Jeffrey MacDonald told Al Jazeera. “As we emerge from the pandemic, IRCC will continue to explore methods in which we can improve the process of transitioning foreign nationals from temporary status to permanent residency.”
As public pressure builds, Hussan said he believed that change would come.
“I think there is an historic opportunity for Canada to build a fairer society right now, and we believe that the federal government will do the right thing,” he told Al Jazeera. “It will do the right thing and ensure full and permanent immigration status for every migrant, undocumented student, worker, refugee, [and] person in the country.”