They pay income tax and contribute to Canada’s employment insurance and pension plans, just like Canadian workers.
But the 24,000 migrant agricultural workers who come here yearly — 90 per cent destined for Ontario — live at the mercy of Canadian farm owners and must leave the country once the planting and harvesting in fields, orchards and greenhouses is done.
Migrant workers who come through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program help grow Canada’s farm products, from tobacco to vegetables, fruits, flowers and sod, earning the provincial minimum wage or the so-called “prevailing” wage set by Ottawa.
The program began in 1966 when Jamaican workers were brought in for work through a bilateral agreement.
It was later expanded to other countries, with the majority of migrant farm workers coming from the Caribbean and Mexico to work across Canada.
“The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program matches workers from Mexico and the Caribbean countries with Canadian farmers who need temporary support . . . when qualified Canadians or permanent residents are not available,” Service Canada says on its website.
With an increasingly knowledge-based economy, Canada relies on foreign farm workers. Their annual number has grown by more than a third in the last decade, from 18,500 to 24,000.
In Ontario, employers request workers through Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, with the approval of Service Canada.
Migrant workers, selected and screened by their countries, sign a contract with individual farm owners detailing their rights, obligations and length of employment, usually from three to eight months.
Service Canada says airfare is shared by the workers and employers, who must provide free housing and a kitchen with pots and pans if migrants choose to make their own meals. (Employers offering meals can deduct up to $6.50 a day from a worker’s wages.)
Farm owners are also responsible for registering workers with the provincial health insurance plan and provide compensation such as “free, on-the-job injury and illness insurance,” said Service Canada.
The program isn’t without its controversies.
A policy paper by Justice for Migrant Workers, an Ontario-based advocacy group, detailed key concerns raised by these farm workers:
• Working 12 to 15 hours without overtime or holiday pay.
• Denial of necessary breaks.
• Use of dangerous chemicals/pesticides with no safety equipment, protection or training.
• Unfair paycheque deductions for EI and other services in cases where workers get little or nothing in return.
“Migrant workers perform rigorous and often dangerous rural labour that few Canadians choose to do,” the policy paper said. “Many workers are reluctant to stand up for their rights since employers find it easier to send workers home instead of dealing with their serious concerns