On April 13, the story emerged of a courageous Jamaican migrant worker who had shared a copy of the egregious contract that they were required to sign in order to participate in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) this year. The contract was little more than a liability waiver that absolved the Government of Jamaica of any responsibility if workers contracted the coronavirus while working in Canada this agricultural season. Criticism of the waiver or the programme in general was dismissed as the irresponsible and alarmist rhetoric of troublemakers as it was repeated that the owners of the farms would take the necessary steps to protect migrant workers.
On April 21, news broke of a COVID-19 outbreak at Greenhill Produce, a farm located in Southern Ontario staffed by migrant workers mostly from Jamaica, Mexico, and Guatemala. At the time of writing, it has been confirmed that 43 workers on the farm have tested positive for the virus. This, unfortunately, did not come as a surprise because without any changes to workers’ rights and protections, such as the right to refuse unsafe work, the Canadian and Jamaican governments and the agricultural industry are knowingly placing migrant workers in situations that are ripe for the spread of disease.
For years, we have been sounding the alarm about conditions facing migrant farmworkers, and we are deeply concerned about the situation faced by migrant workers who are currently in Canada, those who are on their way, and those who have lost their livelihoods due to the closing of borders. Our cause for alarm is grounded in years of advocacy, as well as overwhelming documentation of how and why the SAWP has been systemically failing its workers. Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) and the Caribbean Solidarity Network (CSN) demand that migrant workers have the right to safe, sanitary housing and working conditions that comply with physical-distancing protocols; paid sick leave and all rights under the Labour Relations Act; and that each migrant worker who paid into employment insurance can access all of its benefits – whether in Canada, the Caribbean, or Mexico. Anything less is an admission that the SAWP is tantamount to a modern-day form of indentured labour.
This toxic mix of poverty and the lack of rights places migrant workers at greater risk of work-related illness, injuries, and death than other Canadian workers. It has been documented that migrant workers are less likely to request safety equipment, report workplace hazards or accidents, and work while ill or injured and are more likely to take on unsafe work due to a fear of loss of employment and deportation.
A major concern of migrant workers and advocates is the documented practice of many employers to provide overcrowded, unsafe housing situations. Migrant agricultural workers are at increased risk of transmission of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, and poor sanitation and insufficient toilet and handwashing facilities at worksites also greatly increase the risk of workers developing and spreading diseases.
J4MW has long raised concerns regarding the power that employers have to ‘repatriate’ workers to their home country when they exert their rights or become sick. Given the dangers front-line workers face from COVID-19, there must be zero tolerance for this kind of intimidation – as employers must respect the duty of workers to report any outbreak in the bunkhouse or workplace and refuse unsafe working conditions.
For all migrants, whether in the Caribbean or Canada, there is an overall fear of speaking out about unsafe working conditions as it has long been used as a disciplinary tool to intimidate ‘troublemakers’. For those who remain quiet, they are accepting dangerous conditions not out of ignorance or out of cowardice or carelessness; it is a coping mechanism to ensure survival under precarious conditions. Workers feel that coming to Canada is not a choice.
Today’s global economic crisis should also serve as a wake-up call on how we structure income support for migrants. As thousands of migrant workers are facing spiralling poverty, we believe that migrant workers, whether in Canada or not, should have access to income support such as employment insurance that they pay millions into each year. If so many of our essential workers must cross the border, it is time to rethink income support as portable beyond borders as well.
Often employed under dirty, dangerous, and deadly working conditions, we need to move beyond platitudes to ensure that no injured or sick worker is forgotten during this crisis and that the necessary resources and support are accorded to them to protect their health and well-being at this particular moment. All of this can be addressed today through the implementation of pro-worker legislation in order to ensure fairness, respect, and decency for migrant farmworkers.
Until this happens, those of us in the diaspora, as well as those in the Caribbean, must demand that our respective governments put increased protections for migrant workers in place. Support the work of Justicia for Migrant Workers and the Caribbean Solidarity Network to achieve this. We recognise the importance of the SAWP to migrant workers, but no one should be risking their life to earn a pay cheque.
Chris Ramsaroop is an organiser with Justicia for Migrant Workers and an instructor in the Caribbean studies programme at the University of Toronto. Kevin Edmonds is a member of the Caribbean Solidarity Network and an assistant professor in Caribbean studies at the University of Toronto. Send feedback to [email protected]