By: Constanza Leautaud Grajales
Edited By: Julia Neves
Could the working and living conditions of Ontarian farming companies be considered a “modern form of slavery” towards immigrant employees? Although not well known, immigrant workers significantly impact Canada’s economy due to their crucial role in the agricultural sector, specifically in Ontario. This is because of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program that allows Canadian farmers to employ foreigners, mainly from Mexico or Caribbean countries, and provide employment in Canada that ranges between 6 to 8 months. This temporary status enables farming companies to provide poor living conditions for their immigrant employees. The fact that seasonal workers under this program cannot acquire permanent residency makes it impossible to leave their abusive workplace. They have no choice but to renew an annual contract, even when they have been traveling back and forth for decades from their home countries to Canada. Several injustices arise from the exploitation of these workers: 1. The miserable and precarious living conditions they are provided. 2. No proper training or care given. 3. The government’s lack of action towards these unjust treatments.
1. What are the lives of migrant workers really like? It can be said they are living a similar lifestyle to the one they left in their third-world country. This is due to them residing in deplorable living conditions and earning meager wages, considering the dangerous nature of their work. Not to mention that they receive little help from both their employer and the Canadian government. To start, what is the nature of the work that these people are brought to do? For the most part, it is harvesting. This requires long-hour shifts withstanding rough conditions such as: handling dangerous machinery or highly toxic pesticides, and working in the sun with no protection for shifts ranging from 8 to 16-hours a day. Since agricultural work is very physically demanding, most local Canadians are unwilling to work in this sector, so the government must bring in people who will. An interviewed anonymous source who works in the Human Resources Management department explained the mistreatment of these immigrant employees. They described the mindset of Canadian farmers as “They see their immigrant employees as general labor, who are degraded and dehumanized by both their working and living conditions.” The belief that these immigrants would do anything to keep their jobs enables employers to be exploitative. Living conditions are described as “bunkhouses that are meant to accommodate a certain number of people comfortably, [which] are housing triple that amount.” Some of these houses have been said to be infested with rats and bed bugs, with insufficient and damaged amenities, and little to no privacy due to the lack of space and broken sanitation protocols. These conditions depict the end goal of most farming industries: achieving quotas and gaining as many profits as possible by not investing in better living and working conditions for their foreign employees. How do workers see their work environment? “It is a system based on the pressure to always produce more.”
2. While the job is dangerous, it can still be performed safely with the proper equipment maintenance to decrease accidents and workers being adequately trained. In reality, Health and Safety protocols are not followed by employers. Thus, the work environment is very prone to accidents. Since the workers migrate from third-world countries, most lack education. Given that most of them did not attend anything greater than primary school, they are very unlikely to speak any English. This explains how the workers cannot advocate for themselves due to the language barrier. Since communication is limited and legal rights are not presented to the workers, they fall for any lie because they do not know the law. It is explained by a second anonymous source who works in the Food and Safety department that the workers work in unsafe conditions from the get-go. They are not educated on what their basic rights are; thus, they are usually violated. Often, their supervisors speak different languages, meaning they cannot properly convey instructions or training. Furthermore, they cannot understand any doubts or concerns from the worker. Communication is a basic component in any workplace. How is it that most farms in the agricultural sector do not possess it? Not to mention the harassment and racism these people go through from the start. For instance, “to qualify for the program, workers have to be male, married, with limited education and strong family ties back home in Mexico. When seasonal work ends, they have to return home.” However, this form of discrimination would most likely not be tolerated in any other workplace due to the infringement of these workers’ human rights. All in all, it can be said that “their life in Canada [is] a mixture of opportunity and exploitation.”
3. How is it possible that the government has overlooked this level of mistreatment? Both interviewed sources explained how the policies in the agricultural sector are very lenient compared to those of other sectors. Although these workers must have the same working conditions as Canadian residents by law, a cruel reality is that this is untrue. The sources explain how even when these workers work 8 to 16-hour long shifts, they are not paid for that overtime since the agricultural sector’s legislature exempts farming companies from doing so. Even after the Mexican Consulate was implemented in 2005 in Leamington (an attempt by the government to improve their situation), workers still state that the conditions have not improved since they do not feel like their concerns or opinions are heard. Although some workers report this mistreatment, there is no real punishment towards the farms that would equal any real change.
All of these statements show that if the government put more effort into rectifying this situation, then these immigrant’s work life would improve drastically. For example, performing honest audits that would lead to punishment, like fines or suspensions, towards farms that showed negative results would discourage farms from treating their employees this way. As well as requiring the investment of more money into making living environments much more humane like they deserve. The goal is to see that these workers are more than just tools for profit and should be treated the same as any other worker in Canada who does not have their rights constantly violated.
Corriveau, Isabelle, and Colin Côté-Paulette. “Mexican workers say they are victims of abuse on Canadian farms.” CBC, 13 September 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/mexican-workers-victims-abuse-canadian-farms-1.4820458. Accessed 15 October 2023.
Geo-Mexico. “Why do Mexican seasonal farmworkers in Leamington, Ontario, have their own consulate?” Geo-Mexico, the geography of Mexico, 12 January 2012, https://geo-mexico.com/?p=5682. Accessed 12 October 2023.
Ginsberg, Janie, et al. “The lives of Ontario migrant workers.” Toronto Life, 15 August 2016, https://torontolife.com/life/ontario-migrant-workers/. Accessed 13 October 2023.
Government of Canada. “Hire a temporary worker through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program – Overview.” Canada.ca, https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/services/foreign-workers/agricultural/seasonal-agricultural.html. Accessed 11 October 2023.
Mojtehedzadeh, Sara, and Melissa Renwick. “Snakes, rats, bedbugs, abuse. Migrant worker complaints expose underside of Canada’s seasonal agriculture program.” Hamilton Spectator, 14 October 2019, https://www.thespec.com/news/hamilton-region/snakes-rats-bedbugs-abuse-migrant-worker-complaints-expose-underside-of-canadas-seasonal-agriculture-program/article_7d2243d1-a3cd-59b7-ad81-1d33fe47b196.html. Accessed 13 October 2023.
Puttick, Miriam. “Canada: The exploitation of Mexican and Caribbean migrant workers in Ontario’s agricultural sector.” Minority Rights Group, https://minorityrights.org/programmes/library/trends/trends2022/canada/. Accessed 12 October 2023.
Image by <a href=”https://pixabay.com/users/sbj04769-5725676/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=2508873″>NT Franklin</a> from <a href=”https://pixabay.com//?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=2508873“>Pixabay</a>