News  Culture Shock 2008: Migrant worker exposes farm exploitation

Canada’s 20,000 foreign migrant workers’ rights were highlighted Tuesday as part of QPIRG’s Culture Shock week, exposing some of the exploitation that local agriculture workers face.

Roberto Rodriguez, a former seasonal worker who participated in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) for 18 years , addressed the attendees and stated that the increasing number of exploited worker testimonies were characteristic of the program.

“According to our contract, we have rights and obligations. But really we only have obligations,” Rodriguez said.

When Rodriguez refused to do construction work – which was not part of his contract – his employer tried to deport him.

SAWP began in 1966 to recruit foreign workers from Mexico and select Caribbean countries to Canadian farms. Paid the same wages as Canadians, migrants also receive living space and compensation for immigration and travel expenses from farm managers.

According to Rodriguez, foreign workers are attracted to Canada by the promise of higher wages and better working conditions, yet the long working hours – 16 hours and no overtime pay – and abusive managerial practices taint the industry.

“A lot of Canadians don’t know that we come here and we’re basically used as work machines,” said Rodriguez.

Increasingly, migrants have been coming forward with stories of exploitation by their bosses, ranging from confiscation of their passports and legal documents to reports of blatant racial discrimination and even sexual abuse.

Anna Malla, an activist at the new Agricultural Workers Support Centre in St. Remi, which targets systematic abuses against agricultural workers, explained why SAWP migrants are often exploited.

“Coming here is a necessity for the vast majority of the people in the program,” Malla said. “The Canadian government knows that, and so do the employers. That’s where the exploitation comes in.”

Seasonal workers, who pay Canadian taxes and health and employment insurance premiums, officially have the same rights as Canadian workers. But foreign workers, who often speak neither French nor English and have little exposure to Canadian society outside of their agricultural workplace, are almost never aware of their legal rights as workers and rarely access crucial services.

The Agricultural Workers Support Centre has played a key role in informing migrants about their rights under Canadian law and also encourage workers to unionize.

“Employers are starting to see that there’s someone out there to help us,” said Rodriguez.