Canada needs better protections for migrant workers, federal parties say

Federal political parties say they back stronger protections for migrant farm workers, following a Star investigation that exposed thousands of complaints made by Mexican labourers about abusive living and working conditions in Canada.

Currently, seasonal agricultural workers have no ability to gain citizenship in Canada. Instead, their legal right to work here is tied to their annual contract with a single employer — so-called closed work permits that “facilitate employer control and exploitation of workers,” according to a submission to the federal government made earlier this year by advocacy group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

The Liberals, New Democrats and Greens told the Star they supported measures that would give migrant workers the ability to become permanent residents in Canada. The Conservative party did not respond to questions about the program.

The Star recently revealed details of some 3,100 complaints by seasonal agricultural workers about Canadian employers made to the Mexican Ministry of Labour. They include hundreds of reports detailing unsanitary housing, unsafe working conditions, physical and verbal abuse, as well as retaliation for speaking up about abuse. The bulk of these complaints are not shared with the Canadian authorities.

Reynaldo Garcia Aguilar walks back to the bunkhouse he shares with eight other migrant workers from Mexico just outside of Brantford. Aguilar has spent the better part of every year in Canada for the past 18 years.

Carlene Variyan, a spokesperson for the Liberal party, said the federal government was “overhauling” the country’s temporary foreign worker program and is working to rebuild the integrity of the program” following “10 years of mismanagement” under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

Canada has several immigration streams that allow employers to hire temporary foreign workers to “address a specific, short-term labour need” in sectors where Canadians are “not available.” Historically, these programs have not allowed workers to gain permanent status here.

Earlier this year, the federal Liberals initiated a new program that gives migrant caregivers a pathway to permanent residency in Canada, as well as a pilot program to allow a limited number of other temporary foreign workers to gain permanent residency too. But seasonal agricultural workers don’t meet the pilot’s eligibility criteria, which require at least 12 months prior continuous work in the country.

“We have revamped and are redoing the process to try and make it fairer, more transparent and more understandable for people, and less onerous on both sides if possible, while making sure we are protecting people,” said Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in a September meeting with the Star’s editorial board and reporters.

“I think the best path in that is to ensure that temporary foreign workers have a pathway to citizenship.”

In a statement to the Star, NDP spokesperson Mélanie Richer said her party would revise the program to “ensure a pathway to citizenship” for all temporary foreign workers — including seasonal agricultural workers.

“The federal government must do more to protect temporary foreign workers — many who do not benefit from the meaningful contributions they make to boost our economy,” she said.

Some 25,000 migrant workers from Mexico come to Canada every year to plant and pick Canadian crops.

“If you are good enough to work, you should be good enough to stay,” she added. “It is time to review and strengthen this program.”

Green party agriculture critic and candidate for Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa Kate Storey said her party has “committed to providing landed status” for all temporary foreign workers.

“Every person taking a job in Canada should have the same labour rights and benefits as other Canadian residents, including the ability to get help from Canadian authorities should abuses occur.”

This summer, the federal Liberals instituted a new measure to provide open work permits to some migrant workers who can prove their employers are abusive.

In August, with the assistance of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, a Mexican seasonal agricultural worker became the first successful applicant for an open work permit. The worker testified that his Quebec-based employer did not provide him with safety training or equipment, would not allow him to drink water on the job, chased him down a field when he fell ill while working, and threatened to repatriate him to Mexico.

The Star’s investigation found significant obstacles to workers applying for the permit: migrant workers, who often do not speak English, must file an application online in English or French, and provide documentary evidence translated by a certified translator. The website is also only available in English and French.

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The complaints obtained by the Star show some migrant workers struggle to even leave the properties where they are working: on at least 150 occasions, workers told Mexican officials their employers did not provide transportation — as is legally required — so migrants could do basic tasks like buying groceries or sending money home.

“Application forms should be available in the worker’s language,” Storey said.

“A Green government will build transparency and information sharing into the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, so complaints that go to the authorities in a worker’s home country can be accessed by Canadian authorities.”

“Temporary foreign workers deserve fairness, respect, and dignity,” added the NDP’s Richer. “Just as we expect for all people in Canada who work precarious jobs.”

This story is part of a series made possible with the financial assistance of the R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship.

Sara Mojtehedzadeh

TORONTO STAR

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