Migrant workers: Who they are, where they're coming from

In light of the devastating crash near Stratford, Ont. that killed 10 migrant workers, here's a look at the conditions and numbers of temporary foreign workers in Canada.
Migrant workers in Canada, like this Mexican national harvesting cucumbers in Leamington, Ont., are largely located in Ontario, Quebec and B.C., and often deal with health and safety concerns in performing their job. (Jason Kryk/CP)

A flatbed truck and passenger van collided on Feb. 6 near the hamlet of Hampstead, Ont., killing 11 people — most of them migrant agricultural workers from Peru — and seriously injuring three others. Migrant workers have become an important source of labour for Canada's agricultural sector, and they're being recruited from a growing number of countries around the world.

How many migrant farm workers are there in Canada?

Assessing the precise number of migrant farm workers in Canada is difficult.

"Our problem is they're under two different programs, so it's hard to get an exact number," says Stan Raper, national co-ordinator of the Agricultural Workers Alliance.

Workers can be hired under the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), which was established in 1966. Temporary foreign workers can also be hired under the agricultural stream of a federal immigration pilot project for occupations requiring lower levels of formal training.

The SAWP program brings in around 25,000 to Canada annually, says Kerry Preibisch, a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Guelph. Sixty-six per cent of those workers are employed in Ontario, Quebec has 13 per cent, and B.C. another 13 per cent.

In Ontario, Raper says there are 20,000 workers hired under the SAWP program. About the same number are hired through the other, nonseasonal, program. Those workers could be employed at a wide range of agriculture and agri-food operations, including mushroom farms, as chicken catchers or as greenhouse and fruit farm workers.

Ontario employs 60 per cent of international migrants in Canada on temporary visas working in agriculture, followed by Quebec at 14 per cent and B.C. at 13 per cent, says Preibisch.

How long do migrant agricultural workers typically remain in Canada?

Workers in Canada under the SAWP program can stay for up to eight months at a time. They can also return year after year.

"We've had guys 40 years in the program," says Raper.

Workers under the pilot project come into the country under a one-year contract that can be extended up to four years, Raper adds.

What countries do the migrant workers come from?

When the SAWP started in 1966, the main source of workers was Jamaica. Mexico was added in the 1970s, Raper says. Other Caribbean countries also participate in the program, which focuses on providing workers for the harvest season.

Jamaica and Mexico remain a major source of workers for that program.

Migrant workers travel to Ontario for seasonal labour on farms, sending their money home or saving it to take back to their families.

But a significant shift in the source of temporary agricultural workers happened about 10 years ago, when the pilot immigration project was introduced.

"Prior to 2002, most of the people working in Canada in agri-food industries that weren't permanent residents or Canadian citizens came from 13 countries. They came from primarily Mexico and Jamaica, and then some other countries in the eastern Caribbean," says Preibisch.

The introduction of the pilot project meant employers seeking workers for occupations that are designated as low-skilled could hire people from any country they wished, provided that person could get a visa. That increased the number of countries from which temporary agricultural workers could be hired to almost 80.

Under that program, the countries that tend to send workers to work in agriculture and food industries these days are Guatemala, the Philippines, Thailand, Mexico, Jamaica, Nicaragua, the United States, Ukraine and Vietnam, says Preibisch.

Peru, the home country of many of the workers killed in the crash near Stratford, is not a major source of migrant workers coming to Canada.

"Peru as a big centre of migrant workers is not something that I was aware of," says Preibisch.

Are there any other trends in terms of where migrant agricultural workers are coming from?

The most marked trend has been in Quebec, says Preibisch.

"Guatemalans are replacing Mexicans as the preferred labour force in agriculture," says Preibisch.

The reason for this is unclear.

"People have different opinions about that," Preibisch says. "The labour movement argues quite strongly that it's associated with their organizing efforts aimed at Mexican workers. And so as Mexican workers have become more aware of their rights, they have been replaced…. Guatemalan workers have been seen as a preferable labour source."

How old are the temporary agricultural workers coming to Canada?

Preibisch says they tend to be between 20 and 30 years of age, and they tend to be parents.

"The victims of that [Feb. 6] crash were most likely the breadwinners for their households, maybe supporting multiple households and were most likely parents."

What protections are in place to ensure the health and safety of temporary foreign workers?

Citizenship and Immigration Canada states that "Canadian laws protect every worker in Canada. This includes temporary foreign workers."

According to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, those employing temporary foreign workers must ensure they are covered by provincial or private health insurance.

If private insurance is required, it is incumbent on the employer — not the worker — to pay it. Employers must also register the worker under the appropriate provincial Workers' Safety and Compensation Board.

Are there existing issues with the health and safety of temporary foreign workers?

Migrant workers who responded to a 2006 review of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program by the North-South Institute reported ailments such as "vertebrae and knee problems, skin diseases, respiratory tract infections, hypertension, allergies and depression."

United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW) published a status report for 2010-2011 containing input from migrant workers on a number of issues. In terms of health and safety, nearly half of the respondents ordered to work with chemicals and pesticides said they were not supplied necessary protection; most of the respondents said they were given no health and safety training at all.

Only 24 per cent of respondents injured on the job said they had made claims to workers compensation, and that almost half of all respondents said that working while sick or injured was common due to a fear of "employer reprisal or repatriation."

The UFCW has recommended, among other things, that workers be given proper orientation on health and safety legislation in their native language before they start their employment. It also recommends that they be given a "a free medical exam before they return to their home country, to confirm they are healthy and free from workplace illness or injury."

What are the specific risks tied to the transportation of migrant workers?

The van crash that killed 11 people near Stratford, Ont. on Feb. 6 is only the latest indication of the ongoing perils for migrant workers in transit in North America. 

In 1999, 13 tomato sorters in Fresno County, Calif. were killed when the vehicle they were in smashed into a tractor-trailer. The van had been packed with migrant workers, and only the driver and front passenger had been wearing seatbelts. As a result, the state of California implemented "the most comprehensive vehicle inspection and licensing program in North America," according to Stan Raper, national co-ordinator of Canada’s Agricultural Workers Alliance.

In 2007, a van carrying 17 people was involved in a crash near Abbotsford, B.C. that resulted in the deaths of three migrant workers. It was later revealed that some of the riders had been seated on a makeshift bench made of wood. In 2009, B.C.’s chief coroner released 18 recommendations. They included reminding employers that a driver must have a Class 4 licence to operate a van vehicle carrying 13 or more people; creating multi-language commercials apprising workers of their rights; and increasing the number of random checks of commercial vehicles and 15-passenger vehicles in particular. 

In response, the B.C. government enacted legislative amendments that made proper seats and seatbelts mandatory in vans and buses used to transport people, increased fines for those not buckling up, initiated multi-language ads and websites, and asked provincial police to step up spot checks on these vehicles.

In an interview on CBC Toronto's Metro Morning radio show, Raper said the B.C. government was ignoring the coroner's Abbotsford recommendations. But the province says it has taken direct or alternative action on 15 of the 18 recommendations and the remaining three are still being discussed.

It also has created a website devoted to migrant farm workers and their rights, and the minister of labour, Murray Coell, wrote the province's chief coroner a detailed letter in April 2010 setting out what the province was doing about the Abbotsford recommendations.