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Worthy of Their Hire

Migrant workers spend a lifetime in Canada without much protection.


David Harris

The fatal crash in Ontario earlier this year that killed 10 migrant farm workers from Peru and the driver of the other vehicle stunned the country and broke our hearts.

Most of them were related, all working on the farm of a fellow Peruvian, now a Canadian farmer, employing friends from his birth home as a way to help them and their families.

It seems that only when some tragedy strikes do we even become aware of our migrant workers. Farmers know. Migrant workers are vital to the fruit-growing parts of our country, as the numbers in the top host provinces reveal.

Two thirds of the 30,000 itinerant workers who come to Canada each year work in Ontario. B.C., Alberta and Nova Scotia are the other big destinations.

While the pay is too low for Canadians, the remittances the workers send back home are vital to their families, drawing the same workers back year after year.

A recent study by the Institute for Research on Public Policy found that from spring until fall, the same workers come to the same farms. Wilfrid Laurier University professor Jenna Hennebry, who led the study, was quoted in the Globe and Mail saying that there are “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.”

Often they don’t speak English or French; almost none work with Canadians, meaning there is practically no integration in the communities where they work, despite spending at least half the year here.

Globally, the figures for migrant workers are staggering. According to the World Bank:
—In 2010, remittances were about $480 billion and are expected to reach about $600 billion by 2014.

—More than 215 million people live outside their countries of birth, and over 700 million migrate within their countries.

—Remittances sent home by migrants accounted for two percent of GDP for all developing countries in 2008, but six percent of GDP for low-income countries. In some of the small low-income countries, remittances provided more than a fifth of GDP and are the largest source of foreign exchange.

—Remittances to developing countries are three times more than development assistance.

—Remittances result in increased health and education spending, and more involvement from the private sector; they reduce child labour and help people prepare better for natural disasters.

In Canada, migrants work 60 to 70 hours a week for minimum wage (about $10 an hour). They rarely get overtime. Provincial labour laws offer them so little protection from exploitative and uncaring employers that in 2010, the United Nations’ International Labour Organization ruled Ontario’s ban on farm unions violates basic human rights.

And, as Quebec’s human rights commission noted: “[T]hese persons are part of the social fabric and contribute to the country’s economic health, in the same way as permanent residents or Canadian citizens.”

But the commission was blunt about the exploitation involved: “Without ready access to migrant workers, many Quebec employers would be forced to improve unsatisfactory working conditions for these kinds of jobs.”

Nor are the provinces solely responsible for preventing this. They are responsible for labour laws, but the federal government controls immigration. In 2008, the number of temporary foreign workers exceeded the total number of permanent residents admitted to Canada, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees, of which the church is a member.

Foreign skilled workers—and we need many of them—can be fast-tracked in the immigration process to become citizens. Unskilled farm workers—and we clearly need them, too—have practically no protection, let alone a chance to become citizens. At this stage, it’s not a question about fast-tracking, it’s about human dignity.

As Troy Ebanks, a young Jamaican quoted in our cover story says: “Signing a [migrant work] contract is signing away your rights. … But no contract is just as bad. There’s no security.”

Our political will can make their lives better. We are literally reaping the benefits of their labour. Are they not worthy of their hire?

About the author

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David Harris is the publisher and editor of the Presbyterian Record.

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