"Unfree" Farm Labour in British Columbia?

September 25, 2008

The sudden firing and repatriation of 14 Mexican agricultural workers from an Abbotsford greenhouse earlier this month once again highlights the exploitive nature of Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP).

A growing proportion of BC's agriculture now depends on hiring migrant SAWP workers who are in practice "unfree." Their unfree status is deliberately created by federal and provincial governments, both through the substandard regulation workers are subjected to and the virtually non-existent enforcement of what minimal protections exist. The result is that actual labour, health and safety conditions are left to the semi-feudal whims of many individual employers.

BC's agreement with Mexico says migrant workers have the same rights as Canadian workers. Yet SAWP workers come to Canada assigned to a specific employer and lack the fundamental right of free workers to quit and find a better job. Any job transfer must be mediated by the Mexican consulate, which is not particularly inclined to engage in this practice. SAWP workers are thus indentured to one employer. If they quit, they are forced to leave the country, and it is virtually impossible for them to return with another employer.

SAWP workers have no means of redress if they are dissatisfied with their working conditions or treatment, or if the terms of their contract are not being fulfilled. To make matters worse, the provincial government does not systematically inspect these work places. The Mexican consulate takes little interest in them and is completely overwhelmed with the growing numbers of SAWP workers in BC, which has ballooned from 50 in 2004 to nearly 3,000 in 2008.

The Mexican workers at the Abbotsford greenhouse dared to think about exercising one of the primary rights of Canadian workers - the right to organize and join a union. The employer fired and sent them home before they even had the chance to vote on whether to join the United Food and Commercial Workers. Apparently the employer did so without notifying the Mexican Consulate of his planned action, leaving the union to defend the workers while they are in Mexico. This employer should be denied the right to ever participate in the SAWP again.

None of this comes as a surprise to anyone who researches working conditions in the agricultural sector. Our study (Cultivating Farmworker Rights, released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in June 2008) and other investigations have consistently found that substandard employment conditions are common in the Lower Mainland and other BC valleys. Although some growers treat migrant workers well, there are few efforts by any level of government to protect these workers against less scrupulous employers. Governments and the organized agriculture industry have deliberately placed vulnerable foreign workers in a sector with a history of bad working conditions and left them with virtually no way to defend themselves.

It is time to restructure and reform the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.

The federal government should insist that provincial governments actively uphold the employment rights of these workers. Provincial governments, which are acting on the request of organized employers to meet labour shortages, must recognize the special needs of these workers for protection of their employment rights. Employers who wish to dismiss SAWP workers should be required to show proper cause, and dismissal should not be linked to repatriation. In addition, the Mexican and Canadian governments should deny employers access to the SAWP when they have violated basic worker rights. Unless employers are penalized in this way the wrong messages will be conveyed to other employers and other migrant workers.

These important steps will help ensure temporary foreign workers have the basic protections that their home government, Canada and BC have promised them. Short of making decisive efforts to implement them, we will continue to be "surprised" by news that semi-feudal labour conditions exist right in our own backyards.

Mark Thompson is Professor Emeritus with UBC's Sauder School of Business and co-author of "Cultivating Farmworker Rights." David Fairey, a labour economist, and Arlene Tigar McLaren, Professor Emerita of Sociology at Simon Fraser University, co-authored the study.