'Tremendous injustice' as migrant workers sent back to Jamaica

Two farm workers in southwestern Ontario on a work program from Jamaica are being sent home today. The farm owner says it's because there's not enough work, but one worker says it's because he complained about pay.

Farmer says there's not enough work, Waldin Simpson says early departure will cost him financially

Migrant farm worker Waldin Simpson is angry that he's being sent back to Jamaica with weeks left on the growing season. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Against his will and with weeks left in the growing season, migrant farm worker Waldin Simpson is being sent back home to Jamaica today. 

Thursday morning Simpson and another worker were driven from the farm they were working south of Tillsonburg, Ont., to Pearson airport. This afternoon they will be flown home.

From a financial perspective, the early return is catastrophic for Simpson and his family. They were counting on him to send home the bulk of the $11.41 an hour he earns harvesting cucumber and asparagus on the Kinglake Freshpac Farm near Vienna, Ont. 

"We try to save some money to send back home," Simpson said. "For our family to eat."

Simpson said he and other farm workers face significant costs just to get to Canada, everything from work permits to background checks and medical exams. A total of 14 other Jamaican workers are expected to remain at the farm through September. 

So why is he and another man being sent home early? 

Simpson says they're being singled out for complaining about problems with their paycheques.

'It's not a termination,' farm owner says

However farm owner Frank Pihokker denies this. He says there simply isn't enough work for the men after a lack of rain caused problems with his cucumber crop. He also says the men were properly paid for their work on his farm. 

"It's not a termination, it's a work shortage," Pihokker told CBC London. "Our crop is not performing as expected and we have a lack of a need for them to be here.

"I have tremendous respect for the workers that come from this program and the sacrifice they make. I tried to get them reassigned to a different position. There just isn't anything available for them."

Simpson's work in Canada is arranged through the seasonal agricultural workers program (SAWP) which brings seasonal workers to Ontario farms. The program sends more than 20,000 workers to Ontario each year. Typcially they arrive in spring and stay until Fall. 

Carlton Anderson is the chief liaison officer with SAWP. His office administers the program in Canada on behalf of the Jamaican government.

Anderson says sending workers home early is a "last resort" and that his office tried to find other work for the men, but was unsuccessful. He said sending them home is a better option than keeping them idle. Part of the problem is that the men's accommodation expenses are covered by paycheque deductions. If they're not working, there's no money to cover this. 

"The problem with a transfer is that the worker may be sitting there for weeks while we wait for an opportunity to place them elsewhere," he said. 

Waldin Simpson's pay stub shows that in a typical 34-hour work week he netted $318.22. His hourly wage is $11.43. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Transfers are also difficult under the program. Farmers aren't allowed to informally send workers to other farms and transfers require approval from the worker, the liaison officer and Service Canada. 

Chris Ramsaroop of the group Justice For Migrant Workers says labourers like Simpson should never be sent home. He says they should be allowed to stay until other work is found. 

"It's a tremendous injustice to send these workers home," he said. "It's a practice that needs to be stopped. Workers should have their grievances heard before they're sent home ... and they should be provided the ability to find other work." 

Simpson, who arrived at the farm in April, worries he'll be black-listed and won't be chosen to work in Ontario again. A paycheque for a typical week of work nets him a little over $300, but he says that money is badly needed by his family. He said his earnings can't be matched by any work available to him in Jamaica. 

"This is going to create a bad situation for me," he said. "My people are looking to me [for help] and now I'm going home with nothing."


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.


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