“For 50 years, workers have been coming to Canada to work in our fields and pick our food, and they haven’t been able to apply for permanent residence in Canada,” said Tzazna Miranda, an organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers.
The Harvesting Freedom caravan, which travelled across Ontario for four weeks before ending its trek in Ottawa, was organized in support of the demand for residency status for all migrant farm workers in Canada.
The caravan marked the 50th anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, a federal immigration program that brings some 30,000 seasonal migrant workers from Mexico and participating Caribbean countries to Canada to work on farms for six to eight months each year.
From a demonstration at the Niagara Wine Festival to screenings of Min Sook Lee’s documentary Migrant Dreams, the organizers hoped the caravan would highlight the injustices migrant farmworkers face in Canada.
For Gabriel Allahdua, a former migrant worker and organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers, temporary status is the “root” of the myriad problems migrant workers face, which include barriers to accessing health care and asserting labour rights.
“The caravan ended in Ottawa to demand the federal government make meaningful change — granting farmworkers permanent status,” said Allahdua.
The caravan traversed more than 1,600 kilometres, stopped in more than 20 cities and towns across southern Ontario and included more than a thousand migrant workers from Mexico, the Caribbean, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Guatemala and Peru.
Along the way, there were rallies and demonstrations at government offices. In Guelph, the caravan protested outside Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, which is responsible for paying workers’ compensation to injured workers.
“So many of the people we meet are injured and are continually being pushed by the Workers’ Compensation Board to get off of workers’ compensation, even though they’re seriously injured and they can’t work,” said Miranda.
The barriers to exercising labour rights stem from migrant workers’ temporary status, she said.
“We have found in our work that the fact that people are temporary and can be deported at any time has meant that people are a lot less likely and less able to assert their rights,” said Miranda.
For example, while workers might be entitled to provincial health care, actually getting it remains difficult.
“Workers live in small rural communities where very few health clinics have created any special hours for farm workers to be able to go to the doctor,” Miranda said. “They’re never off in time to attend walk-in clinic hours.”
Many farm workers have “lost their health to Canada and Canadian crops” as a result of barriers to accessing health care and fear that employers will fire them following injury or illness, she said.
Jamaican farm worker Sheldom McKenzie, a 39-year-old father of two, died in May following head trauma resulting from a workplace injury. His death prompted a parliamentary review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which includes the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.
Last month, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities released 21 recommendations following a five-meeting review, though Allahdua said it failed to consult all stakeholders and did not spend enough time examining the program.
The recommendations include reversing the “four in, four out” rule, which bars temporary foreign workers who have been working in Canada for four years from applying for a new work permit for an additional four years. Other recommendations include opening up “pathways to permanent residency” for migrant workers.
But the recommendations are “very vague as to which workers will benefit and when” and are “Band-Aid measures,” Miranda said.
Repealing the “four in four out” rule “might mean that workers have a longer chance to work, to learn their rights and assert themselves at work, but the main problem preventing them from doing so still exists — they don’t have permanent status in Canada,” she said.
Without permanent immigration status, the recommendations are futile, according to several Justice for Migrant organizers.
Workers are also angry about the recommendation that suggests the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program should create pathways to permanent immigration status.
“The Live-In Caregivers Program, for example, has had pathway to residency for years,” Miranda said. “They’ve called it a pathway to exploitation: it’s waving a carrot in front of someone who knows that if they put up with bad working conditions for several years, eventually they can get permanent residency.”
Caravan builds movement, raises awareness
Allahdua said the caravan has helped raise public awareness as part of an effort to pressure the federal government to address migrants’ rights — “during our marches, teenagers would join and they said they’ve never heard that these issues exist in the society, which has been very touching.”
It has also helped connect migrant workers with the movement, she said.
Isolation underpins much of the migrant worker experience, and Allahdua argues this is intentional.
The program is structured in a way that workers are “uninformed about their rights, always unconnected to community and services, and thus completely exploitable,” Miranda said.
Migrant workers “often don’t have anybody to turn to,” Allahdua said.
“They’re in such a precarious and vulnerable position. To know that there’s a voice out there for them, that there’s an outlet, there are people fighting with them and for them, you can see hope in their face and their eyes.”
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