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Migrant workers need better integration in Canada, study urges

A Mexican migrant worker picks grapes at a vineyard in Okanagan Falls.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Good Mexican restaurants in rural Ontario, small-town church services in Spanish, and gridlocked Friday nights with busloads of men wiring money home and crowding into the local grocery store.

These are a few of the visible signs of the growth of Canada's migrant agricultural worker programs, which are becoming an increasingly permanent fixture of the rural landscape.

The workers are often the same from year to year and they work at the same farms and shop in the same communities, typically from April through to autumn. Yet they remain mostly isolated from the Canadian mainstream and are unlikely to integrate, according to a new study from the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

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"When we talk about the 30,000 migrant workers that come to Canada annually, the majority have been here before," said the study's author, Wilfrid Laurier professor Jenna Hennebry. "This is not a one-off. This is people who have spent the better part of their lives, five or 10 or 25 years, coming to Canada to the same communities over and over."

Of the 600 Mexican and Jamaican farm workers surveyed by Prof. Hennebry, the average worker had spent seven to nine seasons working in Canada. They work long hours, often don't speak the language and have little opportunity to connect with the communities they're working to build, according to the study. Less than 1 per cent of those surveyed said they worked alongside Canadians.

"You end up with some kind of disjuncture where they really are quite separate. There is some animosity toward them. You get conflict," Prof. Hennebry said. "Long-term it can be arguably quite damaging because you don't have ways to integrate migrant farm workers with the larger community.

"If this is basically a permanent migration flow then we need to take stock of the degree to which they're integrated and find ways to improve their circumstances."

The study argues that a path to permanent residency in Canada would be one way of contributing to a potential sense of belonging for the workers. About 65 per cent of the workers surveyed said they'd be interested in pursuing permanent immigration to Canada. Another way would be to allow the family members of the overwhelmingly male workers a visa to visit at some point. Canada could also extend some of the settlement services offered to permanent residents to assist with integration.

Terry Hunter, a lawyer who works with migrant workers in Niagara region, said the workers are isolated because they live far from population centres and have no transportation.

"They are that silent group out in the fields," Mr. Hunter said. "I think part of it is inevitable. Most of these guys are working 60-to-80-hour weeks, which doesn't give you a lot of free time. By the time you buy your groceries, do your laundry and get some sleep, that's about it."

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Mr. Hunter said one of the study's recommendations, to give workers the right to appeal their firing or deportation, would be a significant improvement, as would changing their work permits to allow them to work at other farms. At the moment, many workers are reluctant to report workplace-safety issues because they fear their employer will send them home, something they have little power to fight.

"It would change the tone of the program and would lead to more social inclusion," he said.

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About the Author
Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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