Harvest of Shame

June 19, 2008

Especially in the spring and summer, British Columbians enjoy fruits and vegetables grown in the Fraser Valley. But consumers may know little about the people who cultivate and harvest the food we eat. Ironically, at a time of general labour shortages, the BC government has rolled back employment protections for farmworkers and tolerated deplorable working and living conditions in our backyard.

How has this happened in “the best place on earth,” as the government describes the province?

For at least the past 20 years, abusive employment relations have existed in the Fraser Valley. Despite this history, in 2001 the provincial government disbanded a highly successful multi-agency program that uncovered hundreds of violations of labour regulations. The government also made a host of changes to employment laws and regulations that lowered minimum working standards for farmworkers. For example, it reduced minimum piece rates for fruit and vegetable pickers and excluded farmworkers from any entitlement to vacation, statutory holiday or overtime pay.

Our study – Cultivating Farmworker Rights – looks at the impact of these policy and enforcement changes on Fraser Valley farmworkers. Our research team interviewed over 50 farmworkers at length. These interviews were supported by other data and interviews with individuals in government and the farm industry.

Harvest workers in the Fraser Valley are overwhelmingly Indo-Canadian immigrants, most are women, many are in their 50s and 60s. They are employed by “labour contractors” who supply temporary labour to farm owners and transport workers to farms. Workers we interviewed reported that contractors take advantage of immigrants who know little of their rights, especially women who may be intimidated by male contractors’ control of the labour process. These employers frequently violate labour standards and health and safety regulations, and transport workers in unsafe vehicles.

The tragic van crash of March 2007, in which three women died, did not surprise these workers. The government’s cutback on enforcement of safety regulations jeopardized their lives. As one woman stated: “There are no windows, no glass. So you can’t see how many people are pushed in.”

A recent Federal Tax Court ruling on farm labour contractor Employment Insurance fraud underscored the power of contractors. Indeed, farmworkers in our study talked about being scared of contractors. If they say anything, one explained, “ the next day we are not picked up for the work.” As a result, farmworkers are unlikely to exercise their rights and complain about inadequate wages or unsafe conditions.

Unsurprisingly, few Canadians want this work. It pays little (often below the minimum wage of $8/hour). Many workers are in the fields 10-12 hours per day, seven days a week. Working conditions are hard, and often unsafe and unsanitary. One of the most common complaints of workers is the lack of washrooms, drinking water and a place to eat lunch. All these amenities are required by WorkSafeBC – yet workers report never having seen inspectors.

Rather than improve conditions to help attract needed workers, in 2004 the provincial government signed on to the federally-run Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), giving growers the right to import temporary Mexican workers.

SAWP workers are paid slightly more than most Canadian farmworkers, at $8.90/hour. They also receive transportation and housing – which can mean living in a barn. Over 90% are male, most are under age 45, and they must leave their families behind. They are contracted to work for a single farmer, who has the effective right to deny them future employment and can have them repatriated before their contract ends. One migrant told us: “If they see us taking a rest, they threaten to send us back to Mexico.” Given this constant threat, few migrants complain about their working conditions.

The labour of both immigrant and migrant farmworkers is unfree; they cannot exercise their rights to report violations of employment, health and safety regulations. Nor can they change employers, for either legal or economic reasons.

Individual farm owners or contractors may treat farmworkers well, but the current system fails to protect farmworkers from employers who take advantage of the imbalance of power.

What should be done? The basic principle of policy should be to give farmworkers (immigrants and migrants) the same rights as other Canadian workers, such as overtime and paid public holidays. The minimum wage should be raised to $10/hour. To ensure standards are respected, pro-active enforcement is needed, as is an active program to inform farmworkers about their rights. A non-profit agency to supply temporary labour to growers should be created to replace farm labour contractors. Migrant workers in the SAWP should be employed via this new agency, rather than being tied to a single employer who has the power to send them home. Provincial and federal government enforcement activities should be coordinated to ensure all workers’ rights are respected.

BC’s agricultural sector should no longer be subsidized on the backs of vulnerable farmworkers.

Arlene Tigar McLaren is Professor Emerita of Sociology at Simon Fraser University and co-author of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study “Cultivating Farmworker Rights.” Mark Thompson is Professor Emeritus Professor Emeritus with UBC’s Sauder School of Business; he led a commission on employment standards in the 1990s.