Ontario's migrant farm workers not getting protections promised by federal government

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program is supposed to protect migrant workers' safety. But according to a researcher at Western University, that program is somewhat toothless — leaving thousands of workers open to exploitation.

Rules to keep workers safe often not enforced by employers, says researcher

Susana Caxaj, a researcher at Western University, wanted to get first-hand accounts of agricultural workers' experiences, so she published the results of her interviews in a research paper. (University of British Columbia)

The federal government's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program is supposed to protect migrant workers' safety. But according to a researcher at Western University, that program is somewhat toothless — leaving thousands of workers open to exploitation.

Many southwestern Ontario farms and greenhouse operations rely on the federal government's Seasonal Agricultural Worker program for their labour. It outlines minimum standards for safety wages, working conditions and housing — but the program does not always work as it should.

Windsor Morning host Tony Doucette spoke with Susana Caxaj​​​, a nursing professor and researcher at Western University. She wanted to hear from the agricultural workers themselves and has published the results of her interviews in a new research paper.

What sparked your interest in migrant workers and their health?

I've been working with migrant agricultural workers for about five years. As a health researcher, I'm always interested in the barriers and the obstacles that are preventing people from being able to access quality care but also even step in the door, in the case of migrant agricultural workers. I've been interested in understanding how we can improve the health care system for these folks.

Overall, how dependent are we on these workers?

Incredibly dependent. Recent figures suggest that 75 per cent of agricultural positions are filled by migrant agricultural workers. We call many of these individuals "temporary" — and surely, their visas do expire on December 15th every year under the program — but many of them have been coming for decades. So for many of them, it's also a long-term livelihood.

For a lot of individuals, making a complaint, whether it be about housing conditions or workplace conditions or wanting compensation for a workplace injury ... just seem incredibly daunting for these individuals.- Susana Caxaj​​​

How did you conduct your research?

We carried out interviews with about 20 migrant agricultural workers, mostly through a series of focus groups. We were then able to summarize those results and share them through public consultations with over 100 migrant agricultural workers to see how well they resonated and whether they had some of the priorities and challenges that they had experienced. It certainly had a lot of resonance among the larger group.

What did you hear?

What we heard, to some extent, really mirrors what we've seen in the literature mostly in Ontario, which is that these individuals are working under a coercive climate. So they don't feel like they can refuse unsafe work. They don't feel like they can refuse a speed of labour that seems exploitative, because the reality is that they know that they're dependent on their boss to call them back for the next season. And there's a chilling atmosphere for migrant agricultural workers. So if, for example, they hear of a colleague in the east coast or in Ontario or in Alberta who has been deported because they reported a workplace injury or because they refused unsafe work. that message is heard across the farm. Migrant agricultural workers know that to make any complaints or voice any concerns puts them at risk of losing their job. The overarching theme of our work really reinforced the fact that individuals are having to choose between their health and safety and a way to make a living.

What about the rules that exist under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program?

There are plenty of rules. It's a great blueprint for how to treat migrant agricultural workers. Unfortunately, a lot of those rules are not enforced. So we do have inspections by federal agencies, for example. But for the most part, those inspections are done in a way that's announced to the employer, so there's the opportunity to stage better housing conditions or stage better working conditions. So things like lack of protective equipment, lack of access to clean drinking water, a coercive climate or pressure to work beyond reasonable physical limits, those things aren't easily witnessed by federal agencies. More recently, we've seen that some of these agencies that are intended to enforce, the consequence of violating some of these really amounts to a slap on the wrist for a lot of employers.

What kind of protocols are in place that would allow these migrant workers to complain about conditions that might not be safe?

I'd say an umbrella word to describe a lot of these protocols is that they're "complaint-driven." So the onus is on the worker to know their rights, which is difficult — coming from another country with a different legal system. Many of these individuals also have low literacy levels. So to be able to identify that there's something that they're entitled to that isn't being met is difficult for them to identify. And then the individual is expected to make a call to a 1-800 number or to listen through a list of automated options right before knowing how to proceed. So for a lot of individuals, making a complaint, whether it be about housing conditions or workplace conditions or wanting compensation for a workplace injury, which all workers working in Canada are entitled to, are things that just seem incredibly daunting for these individuals. There's just so many barriers.

When it comes to accessing healthcare, which is often an important component of making a workplace compensation claim, many migrant agricultural workers don't have access to an independent translator. They show up with their boss and it's expected that this person will provide unbiased interpretations and that the worker won't feel intimidated or like they need to withhold certain information about their medical records. So there certainly are protocols, but when we account for the unique context and the incredible obstacles that migrant agricultural workers face in making a claim, it makes sense that a lot of people aren't coming forward.

I've heard of a pilot program that you're running in B.C. that hopes to bridge some of the barriers or allow you to eliminate some barriers that these people face. What's happening here?

We are just wrapping up our first year. It's a joint project funded by several agencies, including the Vancouver Foundation. What we've done is try to deliver a combination of legal services, outreach services and education — both to frontline service providers and to migrant agricultural workers — to try to make it easier for workers to access so many of the things that they're entitled to. So we know, for example, that workers are entitled to provincial health coverage. But in British Columbia, there's a premium that needs to be paid, as well as a dependent on an employer to enrol that individual to get them their health card which we're often not seeing.

In terms of any type of legal protection that a worker is entitled to, we have found that it makes such a difference to have someone who speaks their language, who is able to meet them on or off the farm, who is able to explain to them what their options are. What we've seen just in a matter of months, because we really only started in May, is that our legal advocate has 12 or so cases — a new case every few weeks. I think that refutes what a lot of champions of the agricultural worker program state, which is that if people had concerns, they would come forward. What this research is showing is that people do have concerns, but they don't have the resources and supports to actually be able to voice them in a safe way.

Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Listen to the full interview on Windsor Morning:

with files from Windsor Morning


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