Features  Grown in Mexico, exploited in Quebec

Maria Forti investigates migrant workers’ rights violations on commercial farms near St. Remi

Eating local is now more trendy than eating organic. But you may not be aware when you pick up foods with “grown in Quebec” labels that migrant workers who plant and harvest these products toil in poor working conditions within a 100-mile radius of Montreal. These workers fly thousands of miles from countries like Mexico, often expecting work, climate, and culture similar to that of their home country. Instead, they face the challenges of unfamiliar work, weather, languages, and – thanks to the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (CSAWP) – low wages, poor living conditions, and employment insecurity.

CSAWP brings foreign workers to Canada for single-season work on commercial farms. The program was founded in 1966, when Canada signed an agreement with the Jamaican government in order to fill a shortage of workers on Canadian farms.

According to a recent report on the status of migrant farm workers in Canada published by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), CSAWP “has expanded in all directions. Participating countries now include Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.” However, UFCW also points out that the structure and regulations relating to CSAWP have not been updated or changed since the program’s inception.

“Farm work in Canada is seasonal, labour intensive, dangerous, and low-paying…. The agricultural industry is not viewed as a favourable employment sector by Canadian workers due to the low wages, hard physical labour, and seasonal nature of the work. CSAWP provides Canadian farm employers a reliable temporary workforce willing to work under these unfavourable conditions,” the UFCW states in the same report. The reliable and exploitable workforce provided by the CSAWP means that there is “no incentive for the agricultural industry to improve working conditions and pay,” UFCW reports.

Activists mobilizing around issues concerning migrant workers’ rights agree with the UFCW’s analysis. This summer, Sara Todd, a U3 student at McGill and an activist involved with Solidarity Across Borders in Montreal, started biking out to farms that employ migrant workers in the Montreal area. Throughout the summer, she and a group of about 50 biked in groups of around ten to farms surrounding Montreal with Caravanes Migrants, a Solidarity Across Borders’ offshoot program. They spoke with workers and tried to build links to break the isolation that these workers face.

“These temporary foreign workers programs…have been around forever, but they are growing,” Todd says of the CSAWP’s expansion in the last 40 years.

Todd notes a link between the program’s expansion and the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which increased the imports of food from U.S. and Canada-based commercial farmers to Mexico, essentially putting small farmers in Mexico out of business.

“[NAFTA] is one of the reasons why small farmers can no longer survive in Mexico and are then forced to migrate to the U.S. or Canada to find work in order to support their families. It’s all connected. It’s part of the global capitalist system,” Todd explains. Mexican workers in St. Remi, who wish to remain anonymous for this article, recognize that the advertisements for the program in Mexico target campesinos, or small farmers. Many workers state that migrating to Canada was their only option because there were no jobs in Mexico. According to the UFCW, of the 20,000 workers now coming to Canada through the CSAWP, more than half are from Mexico.

Roberto Nieto, an activist with Solidarity Across Borders who also participated in Caravanes Migrants, sees a link between the current situation of migrant workers on Quebec farms, and the history of agricultural work where it relates to global capitalism’s drive for cheaper labour. He maintains that cheap agricultural labour is a model based on slave plantations.

“Slavery brought about this acceptable exploitable labour force,” Nieto says. “We don’t have slavery anymore, but now we have this acceptable form of substandard work conditions. It is still based on racist policies, racist ideas.”

Anna Malla, an employee at the Migrant Workers Support Centre in St. Remi and a migrant rights activist, makes more historical connections.

“When we look back at Canada’s racist immigration policy, we see the pattern: bringing Chinese people over to build the railway, just using groups of people from particular parts of the world to build up the economy here, exploiting them to the max, squeezing every last bit of ‘productivity’ out of them, and then getting rid of them when there is no longer a need,” she says.

Racism and exploitation manifest themselves in the structure of the CSAWP in more ways than one. First and foremost, the program allows the employers on the farms to send the workers back to their home countries at any time, for almost any reason. This constant threat of deportation undermines any workers’ rights granted through conditions set by CSAWP.

“I’ve heard of workers being sent home because their employer said they drink too much outside of the workplace… [or] because they were antisocial,” Nieto says.

Mexican workers on various farms surrounding St. Remi verify this information, saying that a friend of theirs had been sent home because he was sick and had been hospitalized. In that situation, the employer is supposed to pay sick leave hours to the worker, but in this case, and in many others, the worker was put on a plane home and, as in nine out of ten similar cases, likely not asked back to the same farm the next year.

“There is no job security,” one worker says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know if maybe we’ll get switched from a farm where we have worked for five or six years and have to start at the very beginning again.”

Malla adds, “the Canadian state and the big agri-business owners here use these people, these workers, like animals; they use them for their work for however long it suits them, and then when they get old or sick, or act in a ‘disagreeable’ way, they just deport them or fire them. People are treated as though they are dispensable objects.”

Many workers have also encountered problems with unsafe housing and working conditions. Malla mentions houses with poor ventilation, broken or badly constructed water systems, and fungus growing indoors. Nieto and Todd remember a farm that employed mostly female workers who were not allowed to receive visitors and were possibly locked into their dormitories at night. Nieto recalls a man who mentioned that he was spraying pesticides without any training, or awareness of the health risks pesticides pose when inhaled or brought into contact with the skin. Workers have reported to Malla that pesticides are being sprayed while they are working in the same fields.

The poor working conditions don’t end there. Reports of sexual abuse, racial discrimination, and employers withholding passports and documentation are rampant. In addition, migrant workers in Quebec are only paid $8.52 per hour, with no overtime. Quebecois workers claim that they are paid the same, but are more heavily taxed in order to cover the unemployment wages they qualify for in the off-season. Many Quebecois workers are paid more because they are hired for specific jobs, such as operating heavy machinery; however, when Mexican workers operate heavy machinery, they are still paid $8.52 per hour.

In addition, working days are anywhere from nine to 15 hours long and are incredibly repetitive.

“Everyday is the same for us,” a Mexican worker says. “From the time we get up, to the time we go to bed. And the next day is exactly the same.”

Perhaps more troubling than the working conditions is the workers’ lack of awareness that their rights are being violated. Nieto describes a worker who explained why many employees do not know their rights on the farms. The worker told Nieto, “We just do not have any capacity to organize ourselves and know our rights because we are working 15-hour days. So all we do is get up, work and go to bed.”

In order to be accepted into the program, workers may not have more than a primary school education. This contributes to the lack of knowledge about workers’ rights. Furthermore, there is no one to speak for workers’ rights during CSAWP contract negotiations

“There is no representative from the actual workers,” Todd notes. “Say the Mexican consulate actually tried to push for higher wages or better living conditions, the Canadian government can just go to a different country. There is this unlimited supply of workers that can be exploited.”

Both Todd and Nieto contend that the Canadian government will try to start programs similar to CSAWP with any willing country. In fact, there is already a similar program in place that brings Guatemalans to the farms outside of Montreal through a low-skilled pilot project. And in many cases, the treatment of Guatemalans is worse than that of Mexicans; the pilot project stipulates that Guatemalan workers sign their contracts with individual employers, meaning that if a farm does not ask them back the next year, they are out of a job. In contrast, when a Mexican worker is not asked back to the same farm, CSAWP will often find him placement elsewhere.

This lack of worker representation has led to a unionization drive by UFCW. Though three farms in Quebec are awaiting labour board decisions that would allow unionization on these specific farms, UFCW has met obstacles in the form of agricultural lobbyists and government policies. Employers’ ability to purge their farms of political workers who are pushing for a union has further deterred unionization efforts.

In the early 1990s, UFCW began attempts to unionize temporary foreign workers within CSAWP. Since then, UFCW has set up seven Migrant Workers Support Centres throughout Canada that provide educational and support services to migrant workers.

Employees at the Workers Centre in St. Remi offer many services, in the spirit of educating workers about their rights, and hopefully forming unions on farms in the surrounding area. However, much of their time is spent filling out paperwork and helping workers apply for parental benefits – the only tax benefits that migrant workers qualify for. The centres are understaffed and painted as “the bad guys” by many employers.

Even if UFCW managed to unionize all migrant workers across Canada, CSAWP would still be fundamentally flawed. Workers who come to Canada seasonally for agricultural jobs are unable to acquire legal status in Canada. This is more or less a moot point, though; CSAWP stipulates that male workers must have a spouse in their home country in order to qualify for the program, while female workers must have children in their home country. This is supposed to ensure that connections at home are stronger than the connections in Canada.

“You can improve the working conditions. You can work to improve the housing conditions. But if someone still does not have status in Canada, they can always be sent back home – that is the underlying problem,” Todd argues. Threat of deportation is a constant reminder for workers of their temporary and unstable position in Canada.

One of Solidarity Across Borders’s founding principles is “status for all.” Ultimately, the group advocates a no-borders approach to the current capitalist-state system, but in the short term they fight against deportation and for the rights of immigrants and migrant workers by pushing for status for all. In this vein, the Caravanes Migrants were set up to forge links between migrant workers and activists in the Montreal area and add a radical analysis to the issues surrounding CSAWP.

“We’re not necessarily trying to unionize,” Nieto says, stressing the difference between Solidarity Across Borders’s work and the UCFW’s Workers Centre in St. Remi. “Our capacity to actually hear stories and our ability to help is very minimal. We just hope workers will start knowing that we’re around,” he elaborates.

Together, Solidarity Across Borders and the UCFW’s Workers Centre in St. Remi represent two faces of the fight for migrant workers’ rights. Both organizations welcome interested volunteers and both need help to reach their goals.

“We are hoping to start having workshops and skill sharing on how to organize on farms, whether within or outside of a union structure. We’re also hoping to bring together temporary workers from different sectors more often, to share their experiences in trying to organize a workplace with precarious status,” Malla says. “We also always welcome people to come and volunteer, even if it’s to organize activities and not necessarily political stuff, to try and break the banality of the workers’ lives here a bit.”

“People should become more aware [of the situation of migrant workers],” Todd adds. “People should make demands to their government. I think that a lot of non-status people cannot make their voices heard because they are scared that they are going to get deported. So in solidarity, and in recognition of your position of privilege, I think it is your obligation to demand rights for everyone.”