The recent traffic accident near Stratford, Ont., which killed 10 Peruvian migrant workers, exposes the hardships foreign farmhands endure. Although it is premature to link poor labour conditions to the accident, there is much that could be done to improve Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which every year brings in 30,000 temporary labourers to pick strawberries and tomatoes.
While the government is under no obligation to provide settlement services or language training for these workers, it could do more to make sure they are not subjected to unfair labour practices and intolerable work conditions.
Employers should take compliance with labour and health regulations more seriously, and ensure labourers receive appropriate accommodation, as well as health coverage. Vehicle safety and appropriate licensing should not be overlooked.
A new study, released on Tuesday by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, makes these and other useful recommendations. The author, Jenna Hennebry, a Wilfrid Laurier University professor, interviewed 600 farm workers in Ontario. Many reported difficulty accessing health care, and elevated exposure to dangerous pesticides and fertilizers without proper protection. Half the workers said they were transported to their workplaces in vans that often didn’t have enough seatbelts for passengers. They lacked training to operate vehicles, and suffered from high rates of accidents and injuries.
Notwithstanding the program’s shortcomings, many workers return year after year to the same farms, becoming “permanently temporary.” Every year in April, towns such as Leamington, Ont., fill up with Mexican farmhands, who buy tacos in local grocery stores, and remit paycheques from local Western Union outlets.
It is not feasible to integrate these workers into Canadian society, knowing that they will leave in the fall; but it is certainly possible to protect them from exploitation. Ottawa could alter the program and allow workers to switch employers, and exempt them from paying into unemployment insurance programs if they cannot draw benefits. Society as a whole could better appreciate the crucial role these workers play in keeping farms afloat, doing the backbreaking work few Canadians want to do.