In Dubious Battle: Inequity in Canada’s Migrant Work

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By Ryan Kelly
It was with a heavy heart that I read about the recent deaths of eleven workers in Hampstead, Ontario. This tragedy brought to the forefront of my mind a crisis I’ve let stir in its recesses far too often. How do we become complacent in affording migrant workers a different standard of employment than that which is provided to local workers? Specifically, why can employers of migrant workers neglect health and safety legislation, and labour practices, with the lightest of consequences?

Employers caught abusing the legislated protections of migrant workers can most severely be banned from accessing migrant labour for a year. Of the four employers charged under the Occupational Health and Safety Act last year for the workplace deaths of two migrant workers, one was convicted and charged $22,500. Without sounding too insensitive to these employers, these penalties are nothing less than a license to enjoy the pleasures of property and profit over the well-being of people. Service Canada suggests we have migrant worker programs to match seasonal workers with farmers who need temporary support… when qualified Canadians or permanent residents are not available. Is this really the cooperative structure we’re led to believe it is? Why would an employer opt to hire a worker from Central America and the Caribbean instead of an un(der) employed local person? What are the defining differences between local and migrant workers? Is there a culturally-instilled work ethic, a skill set, or a physical advantage to one over another? Concerns raised by migrant workers include working for 12 to 15 hours without overtime or holiday pay, denial of necessary breaks, and use of dangerous chemicals/pesticides with no safety equipment, protection or training. Furthermore, migrant workers contribute to EI, a fund they struggle to access, and are responsible for paying a portion of their air fare. Migrant workers face many barriers in challenging health and safety violations, most especially as employers have the power to initiate deportation proceedings. This a system that prevents farm workers to unionize and collectively bargain in Canada.

Agricultural and domestic work has long been excluded from progressive labour legislation in Canada, leaving these as some of the least desirable forms of work, with low pay and few benefits and workplace rights. Rather than raise the working standards within these occupation groups, a complex system of temporary migrant work has been built. Government policy has instead enabled the exploitation of an abundant supply of workers, often from countries steeped in deep poverty rooted in long histories of  colonialism.

With approximately 90% of all migrant work in Canada used in Ontario, it was not until 1994 that the Ontario New Democratic Party passed the Agricultural Labour Relations Act (ALRA), extending collective bargaining rights to agricultural workers. Just one year later, Mike Harris’ Progressive Conservative government repealed this, leaving agricultural workforce as unprotected as ever. What we continue to experience in this industry is an inherent and indentured prejudice. Why is it readily acceptable to provide lesser protections to workers with a different citizenship status? If ‘the grapes of wrath’ is a euphemism for food rotting while people starve, why do we choose to view migrant work in Canada as a binary issue? Specifically, need it be a question of equal pay or quality, service and product? I would argue there is abundant evidence to the contrary, that improved work standards have been a simple and effective remedy to most of the challenges in a free market society.

There are a number of benefits to migrant worker programs for farmers and the growing number of workers that participate in migrant work. But these programs foster a fundamental inequity between worker and employer. It brings to light a foundational flaw in capitalism as it is currently practised: if one can capitalize on one’s ideas and private property, can one not capitalize on one’s own labour? And why is this inequity between foreign and local workers within our borders legal? What we see as a result is a perfect storm for colonial worker style subjugation. The solution is both simple and necessary. Provide all migrant workers in Canada with the right to free assembly in the form of proper organizing. By doing so, workers can follow a good faith bargaining process which has proven to benefit both the employer and worker, and has continued to raise the quality of living. Let’s enable workers to protect their health and safety.

Ryan Kelly teaches computer science at Donald A. Wilson Secondary School; he is Vice President of District 13 of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, Chair of its political action committee, and is a member of the OSSTF political action committee.

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