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Federal Politics
Labour + Industry

Advocate Decries Loss of EI for Seasonal Migrants

Agricultural Workers Alliance's Lucy Luna on double standards 'injustice' for temp foreign farm workers.

Sebastian Salamanca 23 Jan

Sebastian Salamanca, a Colombian lawyer and student at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism, recently completed a practicum at The Tyee.

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'Temporary foreign workers don't vote' so Tories more easily deal them injustices: Luna.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Lucy Luna migrated to Canada 16 years ago. Now she advocates for migrants, most of them also from Mexico, who are seasonal agricultural workers. She is coordinator of the Abbotsford regional office of the Agricultural Workers Alliance, an arm of the UFCW labour union.

In December the federal government announced that seasonal migrant workers will no longer be covered by Employment Insurance (EI). That news caused hardly a ripple of interest among the wider public but had big implications for the agricultural temporary workers Luna sees daily, she told The Tyee in an interview.

Here are parts of that conversation:

What does it mean when the government says it will no longer offer seasonal migrant workers EI coverage?

"EI is the unemployment system in Canada where a worker pays monthly and has the right to ask for benefits in case he loses his job or has a new child or needs to take care of a family health crisis.

"The EI program is divided into regular benefits -- that is when you are unemployed, and that is the one the migrant workers will not have the right (to) because they don't meet the new requirements.

"Now the government is also closing the door to the special benefits, which are maternity, fatherhood, illness and compassion. These benefits were handy for the workers because they could charge them from outside of Canada; they could finish their work, go to Mexico and charge the benefits, but now that is not possible.

"It's the same as saying that in order to buy a car you have to buy insurance but if you crash, then the insurance won't apply. It's exactly the same. How can the workers be forced to pay the EI if they won't receive the benefits? If that is not an injustice in a so-called first world country then I don't know…"

How are the workers feeling about this decision?

Many of them don't know yet, but the ones we have told, they just cannot believe it. They are in shock. One of them asked, "So we are not going to be charged for the EI anymore, right?" Others hoped that we could do something at the union.

How will this affect the lives of the workers?

"The life of the workers won't change because of being cut off from the EI benefits. Their lives changed completely when they came from Mexico. Their children are growing without them. They are temporary in Canada and then temporary in Mexico, so it is not a matter of how their lives will change. This is an injustice."

What do you think is the logic behind stopping the coverage of EI?

"That is very simple. The temporary workers don't vote because they are not Canadian citizens, so the Conservative government of Harper is, in my opinion, abusing the most unprotected people who can't vote. Why? Because he can. The government can do this because it has the majority, but (it's) an attack to the human rights of the workers and a total injustice."

The federal government announced several changes in the immigration system in December. They include a list of countries "from which refugee claims will be scrutinized more closely" in an expedited process with no right to appeal as well as mandatory detention for irregular arrivals, but at the same time, the Temporary Workers Program is going to be expanded for Mexicans. What are your thoughts on this?

"There is a double standard and not only for Mexicans but for all the temporary workers. The new politics of immigration is saying, ‘You are not welcome to come here as a refugee, we don't want you. But you can come here and work for our country as long as you get back when no longer needed.' That is the message."

What about people who worry temporary migrant workers are taking jobs from Canadians?

"It is very important for people to know that the employers in B.C. can bring temporary workers very easily. The process is every time more simple and expedited. It takes days actually. Of course, people in B.C. can say that this program is bringing people to take the jobs that Canadians should have but that is not true, because the employer must first make every single effort to hire domestic workers. But the government is not checking this. So the abusers are not the workers but the government, and people in B.C. should be aware of that difference.

"The point is that if the government considers that you are good to work then why shouldn't you be good to stay here?"

"When I moved from Alberta to British Columbia in 2006 I found a group of workers buying groceries. I connected with them and started helping when I had free time. In 2007 when the United Food and Commercial Workers were looking for a person to open the regional office, the union contacted me and offered me the job."

What kind of workers are part of your union?

"The majority are temporary workers that come to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (CSAWP), and most of them are Mexicans; however, we support all kinds of agricultural workers, also domestic ones.

"We also support other kinds of workers, like for example the low skilled program, which brings groups from Guatemala. Others are from Saint Vincent, Jamaica, Thailand."

So they left their countries with a job offer…

"Actually, this is the only way they could come. The system is established like this: the workers are recruited in their home countries. In the case of Mexico, the Secretaría del Trabajo [the government agency responsible for workers] recruits them. Meanwhile in Canada the employee makes an application to Service Canada to bring workers. If the employee is allowed by Service Canada, a request will be send to the Secretaría del Trabajo, which selects the workers."

Where do they mostly work and live?

"We are talking about around 3,000 workers, mostly Mexicans in the Fraser Valley, and around 1,200 to 1,500 in the Okanagan including Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Caribbean workers, so in total there are more than 4,000 workers in B.C."

What is the current situation of the migrant agricultural workers in B.C.?

"The relationships between the workers and the employers have always being complicated in British Columbia. These workers come to Canada through a federal program where Service Canada sets the rules. The provinces are supposed to make an effort to make sure these rules are enforced, but this is not happening. The provinces only repeat 'this is a federal program,' so there is a hole where the workers don't have any protection whatsoever.

"In addition, it's been said during many years that the representative of the Mexican workers is the Mexican consulate, but in reality that is not true. In reality the consulates are representing the interests of the employers, because the governments of those countries are interested in not losing the spaces.

"When you read the contract of the agricultural temporary workers, there is not a single word that says that the governments of those countries are representative of the interests of the workers. What the contract says is that those governments are to help administrate the program. When you hear that kind of language you know it means, of course, helping the employer to administrate the program."

"Mexicans started coming to Canada with this program in 1975. From that year to 2000, the Mexican government never claimed one single benefit for the workers nor helped the workers to claim income tax even once, so when we started claiming benefits for the workers the Mexican government started saying, 'No, they have no right to employment insurance.' They were wrong of course, but the point is the workers didn't have and don't have representation today."

Can you say a bit about the life of the workers?

"They get paid $10.25 per hour, the minimum wage. In order to apply to the program they need to be married with children. The Mexican government says that is to make sure the workers are "responsible to keep their jobs," but we claim this is programmed for the workers not to migrate to Canada… moreover, their families don't have a chance to visit them, so you realize their situation is pretty inhuman because when you bring a grown-up man with family in his mother country to live here eight months or two years with other 24 men without contact to the community, that's pretty inhuman even if they are getting paid."

Are all of them men?

"Ninety-nine per cent are men. There is a small amount of women, around 200 in the Okanagan area. The interesting thing is that they need to be either single moms or married with children."

How many hours do they work per day?

"It depends on the time of the year. They work from 10 to 14 hours per day in average, but they are paid with a flat rate, meaning no matter how many hours you work you will not get extra-hour paid or bonuses. The other thing that's very advantageous for the employers is that since they are all alone living together in a house, they don't really want to rest that much, it's very difficult for them to say no to more work, because they will have less time to be alone thinking about their families… so the employers have a workforce available in the farms all times."

Do they live in separate rooms?

"I don't know of any of these workers living in separate rooms. They share rooms. A few months ago I saw a group of 40 Guatemalans living in a single large room in Okanagan."

Two major unions launched and application in the federal court for a judicial review of a decision concerning temporary workers hired to work in a Chinese-backed coal mine in B.C. What do you think about this fact that some unions are challenging the way the Temporary Foreign Workers Program is regulated?

"What those unions are saying is, 'Show us the proof that the employers are doing efforts to hire Canadian workers like the law requires.'

"So they are not opposing the temporary workers program, despite what many have being saying. They are opposing the way the federal government is administrating the program."

Is there anything else you want to say?

"Yes, it is very important to say that for many years it has been repeated over and over again that temporary workers have exactly the same rights as Canadian workers. This is not true anymore."  [Tyee]

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