Foreign Farmworkers in Canada Fear Deportation if They Complain - New York Times
Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Desperate to provide for his family, Hilario Mendoza leapt at the chance to leave Mexico to pick cherries on a farm in British Columbia.

But bad weather left him so idle that he often worked just three hours a day — far less than the 40 hours a week he said he had been promised under Canada’s program for temporary farmworkers. While he waited to go to the fields, he found himself crammed with 34 other laborers into a small house where rain leaked onto their beds.

Months of complaints went nowhere — and then he was abruptly sent back to Mexico.

“We were abandoned,” Mr. Mendoza said of his 2014 experience on the farm. “There are lots more people in Mexico wanting to work in Canada, so they don’t protect our rights.”

Canada’s seasonal agriculture worker program was set up to recruit migrants from Mexico and 11 Caribbean nations to work for up to eight months a year to address chronic labor shortages.

But critics say the program is poorly supervised, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation by employers, often denied the Canadian labor benefits they are entitled to and at risk of deportation if they complain about employment conditions.
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“This program is a form of apartheid,” said Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers, a labor rights organization based in Ontario.

“Migrant workers are employed and live under a different set of legal rights than Canadians,” Mr. Ramsaroop added. “The very existence of temporary foreign worker programs enables the Canadian government to deny basic freedoms and protections as a result of their immigration status.”

The farmworker program is part of a broader initiative that also brings in temporary foreign workers for other industries, like fish processing and home health care. While Canada has decreased the overall number of temporary foreign workers since 2014, the farmworker program is growing, with visas approved for more than 34,000 laborers in 2016, up from about 25,000 in 2011, government figures show.

Josh Bueckert, a spokesman for the federal department that oversees the program, said in an email that the workers “are protected by all the same rights and protections as Canadians.”

The department provides a telephone tip line and a web page, he said, where cases of potential fraud or abuse can be anonymously reported, though neither is in Spanish, the only language many of the farmworkers speak.

Since April 2014, the department has received more than 5,000 tips, and over 640 have resulted in an inspection or a referral to the authorities, Mr. Bueckert said.

In May, however, a report by Canada’s auditor general found scant federal oversight of the temporary foreign worker program, with only 13 of 173 planned inspections completed in the 2016 fiscal year. Temporary foreign workers had not been interviewed during any of the completed inspections, according to the report.

There are thousands of employers in the temporary foreign worker program, yet just eight employers are listed as noncompliant, and only one for labor violations.

Advocacy groups point out that the federal government’s oversight authority is limited because provinces and territories are responsible for enforcing health, labor and workplace safety standards for the workers, and protections are uneven. Most provinces, however, do not even know the names of the temporary foreign workers employed there, who they work for or where they are.

This month, the British Columbia government announced plans to collect such data for a registry that would help protect workers from abusive employers.

Advocates also point to other problems with the system. Consulates of the workers’ home countries are charged with helping the laborers if they need assistance. Yet officials often side against workers in disputes to prevent employers from hiring more compliant laborers from other countries, advocates say.

In 2014, the British Columbia Labor Relations Board ruled that the Mexican government had improperly interfered by blacklisting from the program a Mexican worker who consular officials suspected was a union sympathizer.

Felix Martinez, a former Mexican consular liaison officer, testified in that case on behalf of the worker. He said in an interview that the consulate was “terrified” of challenging employers.

“The priority was to keep employers happy so they continue to request Mexicans,” said Mr. Martinez, who left the consulate in 2011 and now works for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in Canada.

The Mexican Consulate in Vancouver did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Mr. Martinez said he had seen foreign workers exposed to toxic pesticides, housed in metal shacks and forced to use a stream as their only source of drinking water. Most workers, he said, keep silent rather than risk being sent back to the poverty of their homelands.

“It’s either this or starve,” he said.

Some Mexican workers said that before leaving for Canada each year, Mexican officials warn them not to make trouble.

“They always say, ‘You’re going to Canada to work, not to cause problems,’” said Erika Zavala, a 32-year-old single mother, while in her trailer at an organic carrot farm in British Columbia. She has worked there since 2014.

At the farm, she weeds on her hands and knees for 10 hours a day, earning about $8 an hour. The trailer she shares with another Mexican woman has no hot water. In past years, she has slept in a decrepit, mice-infested Airstream with a door that could be locked only from outside.

Though she earns less than she did at previous Canadian farm jobs, Ms. Zavala said she never complained because she fears being barred from the program.

For some, however, the program has been a success.

Julio Meneses, 40, has traveled from Mexico to work for the past 16 seasons at Beverly Greenhouses, a sprawling cucumber farm in Ontario. Now a supervisor earning around $15,000 during his eight-month stint, he has been able to pay his son’s tuition at two of Mexico’s most prestigious universities.

Once his son finishes school, he said, he’ll stay in Mexico. “For now, I’m building something for the future,” he said.

Canadian employers cite such economic success stories while dismissing suggestions that the program exploits workers.

“They’re not going to work for you properly if they’re not happy,” said Phil Tregunno, 62, a fourth-generation fruit farmer in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, who has hired 120 foreign workers over the course of this year.

Ken Forth, the president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, an organization in Ontario that assists with requests and transport of workers in the program, said that employers faced rigorous standards and that workers could receive quality medical care in Ontario and qualify for a Canadian pension.

He disputed claims that workers had been improperly sent home, saying that foreign governments in the program must approve repatriations.

But Michael Campbell, 54, who was a temporary farmworker in Ontario for nine seasons, had a very different experience. He was sent home in 2008 when he hurt his back picking peaches.

A father of four, Mr. Campbell said he was left permanently disabled, and filed a claim with the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, the provincial agency responsible for providing workers’ compensation. In 2011, the board ruled that he was not entitled to further compensation, claiming he could make up the loss of earnings by working as a cashier in Ontario — even though he was ineligible for a Canadian work visa.

“It’s farcical,” said Maryth Yachnin, a lawyer at the Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario, a legal clinic in Toronto that is representing Mr. Campbell in the case.

Mr. Campbell has appealed the ruling and was asked to testify before a board tribunal in Ontario in June. “I want justice,” he said, speaking by phone from his home in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica.

But in May, Canada’s immigration ministry rejected the application for the visa he would need to come to testify, over concerns he would stay in the country illegally, according to an emailed statement from the ministry.

Ms. Yachnin said immigration officials took issue with Mr. Campbell’s lack of income, despite the clinic’s explanation that overstaying the visa would jeopardize the very compensation case he has tried so hard to win.

Taken together, she said, the government’s actions reflect a deep disregard for the rights of temporary foreign workers.

“They just don’t see these people as people,” she said.

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Source: The New York Times / Dan Levin

Photo: Migrant farmworkers from Jamaica working on a vineyard at Tregunno Family Farms in the Niagara region of Southern Ontario. CreditAaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times