Dan Rankin, For the Gazette
The saying, “If you ate today, thank a farmer” is on more than a few fridge magnets and bumper stickers around Southwestern Ontario.
“If you ate today, thank a migrant farm worker” is a little more rare, even though the efforts of workers from Jamaica, Mexico and other nations are instrumental in putting locally grown food such as tomatoes, apples and blueberries in Ontario supermarkets.
The complex relationship temporary foreign workers have with Canada, and the challenges they face while living and working in Ontario, were the subjects of a lecture at Stratford Central United Church on Tuesday, Nov. 27.
Janet McLaughlin, associate professor of health studies at Laurier University and research associate with the International Migration Research Centre, gave a presentation on the day-to-day challenges faced by migrant farm workers and their families.
Local interest in these “hidden worlds” on the fringe of Ontario communities has grown since the collision near Hampstead that claimed the lives of 10 Peruvian migrant workers almost 10 months ago.
“They are deeply connected to us in the most intimate way because they help produce the food that we consume,” McLaughlin said. “But for every good thing there is a challenge, and for every downside there’s a success story.
Eight years ago, McLaughlin traveled to Mexico, Jamaica and Guatemala as well as various rural regions of Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, spending time living alongside migrant farm workers and talking about them with their employers, residents of nearby communities, labour groups and government representatives.
She identified two main factors that have resulted in Latin American migrant workers becoming integral components of seasonal agricultural work in Canada.
“In many cases, Canadians do not want to do these jobs under the conditions that farmers are offering,” she said. “Farmers and agricultural employers consistently say that they have tried hiring local workers and they leave. The farmers say, ‘I need my harvest done and I can’t afford to pay $20 an hour to attract a Canadian worker.’
“Whereas migrant workers coming from countries in Latin America, for example, think, ‘this is my chance to finally support my family and make ends meet, because in my country, these opportunities are not available.’”
There are now over 300,000 temporary farm workers coming to Canada every year – more than those coming to the country as permanent residents each year, McLaughlin said. Despite the important role the workers play in the Canadian economy, under current laws and regulations, their living and working conditions are far from perfect.
“We’re not thinking about the long term implications of this situation, of having people who are meant to be temporary on a permanent and growing basis,” she said. “We’re not thinking about how we need to reform our systems to make them fair and just.”
In her interviews with the workers, some recurring issues they brought up included high anxiety and depression, stemming from fear of being deported home due to injury or other health issues.
“Often they’ll just go on working through very severe health problems,” she said. “I’ve seen workers that had appendicitis, advanced kidney failure, cancer; they didn’t seek attention until they were on death’s door.”
Also, because the workers’ permits are closed, workers are “tied to specific employers” with no option of seeking employment elsewhere, McLaughlin said.
“Typically they’re told that they can go home if they’re unhappy, but these workers are depending on this income to support their families.”
Taking a job in Canada to provide for their family means that a migrant worker must spend many months separated from them, year after year. This can strain marriages and further contribute to worker depression, which can lead to substance abuse, McLaughlin said.
“This is probably the hardest part for migrant workers, being here in Canada,” noted McLaughlin, sharing a story about a woman whose husband was killed in an accident while employed through a migrant worker program.
She was then forced to take work as a migrant worker herself.
“She told me, ‘I have to leave my two young children with no parent at all because my husband was killed and there’s no long term support for our family,’ so now she has to go to Canada each year,” McLaughlin said. “This, for them, is the best of a very limited set of alternatives.”
Occupational health and safety remains one of the biggest concerns for migrant workers, particularly transportation, she noted.
“It’s very unregulated. The workers often don’t have seatbelts or the proper licenses. If they’re on a bicycle they often don’t have helmets or reflectors. These are preventative deaths.”
But the lack of opportunities in their home countries leaves many families in what McLaughlin called “a cycle of dependency on migration.”
She suggested a number of policy changes that might improve the quality of life of both the migrant workers in Canada and their families back home.
“I think that there should be a long term form of health insurance,” she said. “Workers are paying into it; they should be cared for once something goes wrong. This has to be a bi-lateral or a bi-national health insurance plan. These kinds of policy changes could be created to resolve these difficult situations.”
Other changes McLaughlin would like to see made include providing language training; allowing a pathway that would permit migrant workers to permanently immigrate; creating open work permits that would let workers who get fired or are forced to quit apply for other work within the duration of their contract time; and creating an ombudsperson to oversee complaints or appeal job terminations.
She encouraged members of the public interested in seeing similar changes to tell local politicians that they care about migrant and agricultural issues, as well as reaching out to migrant workers, getting to know them and recognizing their efforts.
“When relationships start to form, it can be very transformative,” she said.
For more information visit justicia4migrantworkers.org or migrantworkerhealth.ca.