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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), the agricultural stream of Canada's Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP).
With the federal review of the TFWP set to end on June 15, Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA), a group that advocates and provides support for migrant workers in Okanagan Valley, is demanding immediate reform of the program.
"In 50 years this program hasn't changed, hasn't been reformed. We're still seeing the same issues as when it was created. We're calling for serious overhaul including status upon arrival for all migrants," RAMA co-founder and organizer Elise Hjalmarson told rabble in a telephone interview.
RAMA's demands also include provincial health care upon arrival, stricter regulation of compliance with workplace safety standards, and legal protections for injured migrants facing deportation.
Closed work permits
SAWP began bringing Jamaican migrants to Canada as seasonal labourers in the agricultural sector in 1966, under a Caribbean Commonwealth agreement. Mexican migrants were incorporated into the program in 1974. SAWP currently operates in Alberta, Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, and British Columbia.
Migrants' home countries screen and select workers for approval. Once approved, migrant workers sign a seasonal contract with a single employer for a maximum of eight months between January 1 and December 15.
Hjalmarson told rabble that most of the issues migrant workers face "are tied to the fact that workers are unfree while they're in Canada. They're legally bonded to their employer and that's because their work permits are tied to a single employer with whom they come into the program."
Migrant workers' legal rights and protections in Canada are therefore contingent upon their single-employer work permit.
Hjalmarson described how many migrant workers are afraid to report unsafe working conditions, harassment, assaults, injuries, poor housing conditions, or underpayment because they are afraid of losing their job and being deported.
Barriers to health for migrants in B.C.
One of RAMA's priorities for migrants is access to health care. Agriculture is one of the most dangerous sectors to work in, but migrant workers are not covered under B.C. Medical for their first three months in Canada, RAMA co-founder and organizer Amy Cohen told rabble in a telephone interview.
During these first three months, migrant workers are all covered under a single private insurer called Cowan. "The problem is that Cowan doesn't bill directly, so workers need to pay out of pocket. That's often hundreds of dollars which they need to have in cash, which they often don't have," Cohen explained.
Cohen also cited language barriers, difficulty finding transportation to clinics, no mandatory orientation for migrants upon arrival, and fear of being sent home as other barriers to health-care access.
Cohen described an incident last year where many heavy boxes fell on a worker, causing him to fall unconscious. "He had really sharp, shooting pains in his chest and arms, and he was sent home within three days. The fact that they know this has happened to people in the past makes them very scared to call their employer and let them know they're injured," Cohen told rabble.
Most of the health issues and injuries workers sustain involve hazardous chemicals, repetitive motion, falling, or having things fall on them. While workers are "supposed to be provided with training for using pesticides as well as given safety gloves, that often doesn't happen," Cohen noted.
Cohen told rabble that WorkSafeBC rarely schedules visits to inspect farms in the Okanagan Valley. "Farms also often prevent WorkSafeBC officials from ever talking to migrants," Cohen continued.
"Workers ask [RAMA] all the time to call WorkSafeBC and request a surprise visit or inspection," but Cohen said that when WorkSafeBC does schedule visits, they often call farms beforehand, allowing employers to prepare in advance. "If there was more oversight from this government, these injuries could be prevented," Cohen argued.
Access to rights and legal status
The issues migrants face are intersecting, both Hjalmarson and Cohen emphasized. Without BC Medical coverage or WorkSafeBC oversight, workers are left without recourse. There is also no mechanism to prevent employers from repatriating injured or ill migrants.
RAMA is demanding that the federal review of the TFWP address these barriers to accessing health care and to justice for migrants in general. As a member of the Coalition for Migrant Workers Rights Canada (CMWRC), RAMA is participating in the #StatusNow campaign to call for permanent resident immigration status upon arrival and open work permits.
"We need to stop thinking about and calling migrant workers 'temporary workers,'" said Cohen. The word "temporary" was first used to describe temporary labour shortages, but Cohen insists this is outdated.
"That was over 50 years ago," Cohen continued. "The work persists, and more and more migrant workers live and work in our communities each year. By continuing to think about this work as temporary serves to devalue both the work and the workers and justifies excluding migrants from full access to rights and legal status."
Cohen emphasized RAMA's own demands in an email: B.C. Medical coverage upon arrival in the province, laws that prevent employers and consular officials from repatriating ill or injured workers, surprise farm inspections every year by a government or independent agency, and an appeals process for fired farm workers.
RAMA's longer term goals include visitor visas for workers' families, full access to employment insurance (EI) benefits, and justice for all migrants.
Correction: A previous version of this piece noted it was the 66th anniversary of the TFWP when it is the 50th. We regret this error.
RAMA Okanagan continues to provide volunteer-run services such as transportation, mediation, worker accompaniment, translation, and more for migrants in the Okanagan Valley.
Sophia Reuss is a Montreal-based writer, editor, and is a recent graduate of McGill University. She's interested in how online media and journalism facilitate public accessibility and conversation. Sophia also writes and edits for the Alternatives International Journal. She is rabble's current news intern.
Photo: flickr/Fer Armenghol
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