Monday, 5 November 2012

Unfree Labor in Canada

When I was a child in the 1950s, my mother told me she had a sister who had gone with her husband to live in Australia via a program called “assisted passage.” As I then understood it, a farmer had assisted their emigration from Britain by paying for part or all of the cost of their transportation to Australia, in return for which they had to work for him for two years. In my child’s mind, I thought this was very generous of the farmer. But in 1999, I finally met this aunt. When I asked her about her two years working for the farmer, she told me it was like being a slave.
Mexican migrant worker in Leamington, Ontario. Retrieved from
So I was interested in the research that Jenna Hennebry and Janet McLaughlin, two of my colleagues at Wilfrid Laurier University, have conducted on temporary workers in Canada. I live in the province of Ontario, where much farm labor is done by temporary workers from the Caribbean and Latin America, especially Mexico. These workers—mostly men—come to Canada year after year to work on our farms, but they are not permitted to migrate permanently. They stay every year for as long as eight months without their families, then they have to go home. They are not permitted to change jobs; they are tied to the employer who sponsored their migration and they have to live on the employer’s property. Although technically speaking they have some rights to health care, they often have no transportation to get to doctors and they are afraid that if they take sick time their employers will fire them. Employers can fire them at will: they don’t have to give cause; and as soon as you are fired, you have to go home. So it’s also not a good idea to complain about your working or living conditions, or your employer may decide to get rid of you and you will be deported.
According to Janet and Jenna, temporary farm workers in Ontario are not allowed to join trade unions; they are also excluded from provincial regulations about maximum hours and overtime pay. They are obliged to pay taxes and pay into the employment insurance program, even though they can’t benefit from it since they have to return home if they are unemployed. Not surprisingly, most of these hard-working people whom the Canadian government doesn’t want to stay in the country are Latinos or people of African descent.
Temporary workers in Canada aren’t slaves or even indentured laborers: they can quit their jobs if they want and go home. They are paid –often minimum wages—and their housing, such as it is, is provided for them. Technically speaking, their governments are supposed to protect them if they are abused in Canada. But in fact they are caught in a system that tells them that no matter how hard they work in Canada and how long, they can never migrate here. Yet our government claims that it wants people to migrate to fill gaps in our labor supply. “Canadians” born and bred don’t like farm labor jobs, which can last for many hours a day during harvest time.
Horacio Gallegos, a Mexican migrant worker in Leamington, ON 2002, retrieved
Also, like many other Western industrialized countries, Canada hasn’t signed the 1990 United Nations’ International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families. It seems that migrant-sending countries want migrant protection, but migrant-receiving countries don’t. Canada likes to boast about how it’s a country built on immigration, but it favors highly educated, highly skilled migrants, preferably those who can bring money into the country. Poor people, even if they work hard and can already speak English (in the case of Ontario) aren’t as popular, even though there is a shortage of Canadians willing to do unskilled farm labor. My guess is the reason the government doesn’t want to accept these workers as permanent migrants is that it would have to pay them unemployment benefits during the off-season.  And since they work such long hours, they might also become permanently ill as a consequence: by shipping them home, the government off-loads their health costs onto other governments or onto the workers themselves. Janet and Jenna say that seriously ill or injured workers are usually returned home.
Right now it’s fashionable to urge people to “eat local,” especially to eat food produced within 100 miles of where you buy it.  The idea is that your food will be healthier and you will support local farmers. But as far as I can determine from Jenna and Janet’s work, the farmers I would support if I followed the “eat local” policy might well be exploiters of temporary workers.  If I really care about human rights, I would do better to boycott Ontario farmers!

Jenna A. Hennebry and Kerry Preibisch. “A Model for Managed Migration? Re-Examining Best Practices in Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.”  International Migration, 2009.

Janet McLaughlin, “Classifying the ‘ideal migrant worker’: Mexican and Jamaican transnational farm workers in Canada.” Focaal--Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology,  vol. 57, 2010, pp. 79-94.

Janet McLaughlin and Jenna Hennebry, “Managed into the Margins: Examining Citizenship and Human Rights of Migrant Workers in Canada,” chapter prepared from Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann and Margaret Walton-Roberts, eds. Slippery Citizenship, in progress.

1 comment:

  1. I guess the problem with granting migrant laborers resident status is that they will shift to much more appealing forms of labour (janitors, construction, etc.), causing a permanent shortage of labour in the agricultural sector and causing an insatiable demand for more and more migrant workers to fill this vacuum. The only solution is to raise wages for agricultural workers.

    I am enjoying your blog. Kudos!