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Not an easy life for migrant workers

Each year, foreign workers come to Canada to support their families, and face terrible living and working conditions

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Reported by Lindsey Lloyd and Allison Hayes

When a Mexican migrant worker arrived at an Abbotsford farm 11 years ago to work, he found himself sleeping on a floor.

He came to Canada as a farm worker with the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Workers Program that allows Canadian farm owners to bring foreign workers to Canada for eight-month agricultural seasons.

“First time here, it was very bad,” said the worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.

“[I didn’t] have a bed, only the floor. Had to sleep on the floor. They didn’t even have a mattress, No laundry… Four people in one room… where [we] all slept with a kitchen and washroom in the same room.”

The Voice interviewed two migrant workers from Mexico as part of its investigation into their working condition on Metro Vancouver farms. Both recounted stories of abuse, exclusion and vulnerability.

Raul Gatica, director of the Migrant Workers Dignity Association in Vancouver, said workers continue to face the same problems he saw 11 years ago when he began the advocacy organization.

“Helping the farmworkers, nobody does that,” he said. “Nobody goes to the fields.”

Faced with a lack of employment in Mexico, the migrant workers said they come to Canada to provide for their families back home. But both said that the substandard working and living conditions have stayed not improved over the years.

The second migrant worker, who has been coming to Canada for seven years, said one farm that he worked at had 16 people sleeping in the same room.

“We don’t have privacy… everybody uses everything. You make meals for the next day, somebody eats it, or takes it away,” he said.

The first migrant worker, who previously worked on an Abbotsford farm, said the farm operator used to verbally abuse him, commenting he “had no brains.”

After several months of problems and abuse by the Abbotsford employer, some of the Mexican migrant workers took their complaints to the Mexican consulate in Vancouver.

The consulate took several months to respond to their concerns, but did eventually speak with the farm operator. But the problems persisted.

The migrant worker remembers his boss yelling obscenities and continuing to insult the workers.

“It almost became physical… I felt his intention was to fight me. I felt powerless,” he said.

“When we first come here we have no knowledge of labour laws or rights and employers use that to their advantage,” he said.

Today he still categorizes his living situation as “very bad.”

Started in 1966, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program plays a critical role in Canadian agriculture by hiring migrant workers for seasonal agricultural jobs that are difficult to find Canadians to fill, according to experts.

Since 2010, the number of migrant workers in the SAWP has increased, with almost 7000 coming to work in B.C. in 2015, according to Statistics Canada.

UBC law professor Robert Russo said filing complaints or reporting workplace injuries is challenging for migrant workers, as they do not have the same employment protections or rights as Canadian workers.

“With housing and working conditions, it is not clear what level of government will respond to [complaints]. The SAWP is a federal program, so if you try to complain about a housing issue, they would say, this is not our mandate you need to talk to the provincial government. If you try and talk to the provincial government, they’ll say the housing issue is a municipality responsibility,” Russo said in an interview. “It is a shuffling between levels of government back and forth.”

When filing a claim with WorkSafeBC, the workers usually cannot get past the first step of reaching someone over the phone because they speak minimal English, said Kassandra Cordero, director of equity and human rights at the B.C. Federation of Labour.

WorkSafeBC told The Voice that they do not have data on the number of claims from Temporary Foreign Workers because they do not collect this information from claimants.

Burnaby-Edmonds MLA Raj Chouhan began campaigning for better conditions for farmworkers in the 1970s. He is meeting with mistreated workers decades later as an elected official.

“Many of [the] workers experience huge difficulties to achieve justice at their workplace,” said Chouhan, the founding president of the Canadian Farmworkers’ Union.

“If they are involved in some kind of work-related dispute or they make a complaint, they are sent back [to their home country] and blacklisted. Then they will not be able to come back for several years to B.C.”

One of the migrant workers interviewed agreed.

“The employer feels empowered because he knows no one is there to protect us,” he said.

Russo said that while the migrant workers see the Mexican consulate as representing them in Canada, the consulate’s primary role is to serve the needs of the Mexican government.

The Mexican government wants to send the maximum number of workers to Canada because the workers send cash back to their families in Mexico, he said.

Migrant workers have the right to unionize but both Russo and Cordero said that efforts have been made to stop them from contacting unions by Mexican officials.

Russo said that farm owners want the program, claiming that without it, “the agricultural sector would go under economically.”

But the biggest problem with the program is that the temporary workers don’t have an open permit, meaning they can’t switch employers if they are abused on the job, he said. Nor do they have a clear path to citizenship.

“The open work permit would change the relationship between the employer and the employee,” Russo said.

The B.C. government announced in August that it plans to create a temporary foreign worker registry that would collect the names and jobs of all migrant workers in the province so they would have recognition and there would be more transparency.

The federal government also announced within the 2017 budget that it would increase onsite inspections of workplaces that employ foreign workers and collaborate with community organization to protect vulnerable migrant workers.

Chouhan said these workers “are providing a very important function for our economy and they should be treated with respect and dignity.”

“If somebody is coming to this country and working year after year, why don’t we use the same laws that allows people to come and work and stay here permanently?” he said. “They should not be treated as second class citizens.”

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