Migrant farm workers inhabit precarious working world
This document is controversial
Lack of rights extends to workers who die in workplace accidents.
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The uproar over RBC’s outsourcing scheme has put Canada’s temporary foreign worker program in the spotlight. RBC has issued apologies and promised to find jobs for the employees targeted for replacement, while Stephen Harper’s government is moving quickly to reform the system. But if politicians, business leaders and pundits want to get beyond instant analysis and quick fixes, and if they particularly want to know about life — and death — in one of these temporary foreign worker programs, a golden opportunity is waiting for them right now in Toronto.
The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal is currently hearing an application on behalf of Ned Livingston Peart, a worker brought from Jamaica in the seasonal agricultural workers program (SAWP) who was killed on the job at an Ontario farm in 2002. Peart was crushed to death when a 450-kilogram metal bin fell on him. Peart’s family received conflicting information about how the accident happened, and the police report provided few satisfactory answers.
According to Justicia for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group, Peart’s death was one of more than 50 suffered by migrant workers in Ontario since 1996. This includes the 11 farm workers killed last year in a traffic accident near Hampstead. The International Labour Organization identifies agriculture as a leader in workplace accident rates, along with mining and construction.
The Ontario government has recognized the hazards in mining and construction, particularly by making it mandatory that the coroner hold an inquest for any accidental workplace fatality in those industries. But the Coroner’s Act does not require an inquest into deaths on the job in the agricultural sector. Nevertheless, inquests have been conducted numerous times, such as the one into the deaths of three workers on a farm near Drayton in 2001, just a year before Peart’s death.
But the unfortunate workers killed in the Drayton accident were Canadian citizens, not temporary migrant workers. According to Justicia, there has never been an inquest held into the death of a migrant farmworker in Ontario. For Peart’s brother Wilbert, who is the applicant in the case to the tribunal, “not knowing the truth” about how his brother died remains “the hardest part.”
Peart’s family and many activists view the imbalances in the Coroner’s Act and in coroners’ practices as clearly discriminatory against migrant workers: why should the deaths of some workers in dangerous industries be ignored while deaths in others are subject to inquests? Another key part of the complaint is that neglect from the coroner’s office is just another layer of inequality and injustice that farm workers in the SAWP face.
Indeed, migrants in the SAWP are put into a different — and vastly inferior — working world than the rest of the Canadian workforce. They are permanently precarious: They must return to their homelands at the end of each work-cycle; have no opportunity to apply for permanent status, and are not even guaranteed to be rehired the following year. They are further marginalized as visible minority workers, separated from the rural communities where they work and grouped together in housing provided by their employers.
Migrant workers are also bound to one employer by their contacts and their work visas; they have almost no chance to switch jobs, even to another employer in the system.
These factors make it difficult for migrants in the SAWP to speak out about unsafe work and other problems on the job. They live in continual fear of being sent back to their homelands if they complain — or indeed have any problem at work. In particular, some activists report that there have been a number of instances of migrant workers who became ill on the job in Canada and were sent home early, or released after their contracts were finished, and then deteriorated further and even died in their homelands. Whether workplace hazards — especially using dangerous chemicals such as pesticides — caused these deaths has not been established and there has been no interest in exploring the question. Indeed, these migrants perished completely out of sight and out of mind to Canadian policy-makers, the media and the public. The Peart case is largely about whether yet another migrant worker will have died with hardly any notice in Canada.
If we are serious about reforming temporary worker programs, we should start by building some basic protections against exploitation, abuses and unsafe — often deadly — work conditions for everyone. And an obvious step would be to ensure there is a coroner’s inquest into every workplace death in one of our most dangerous industries — no matter where the worker came from. As Wilbert Peart put it, “If what happened to Ned is not properly investigated and made public, this will keep happening.”
David Goutor is an assistant professor in the School of Labour Studies at McMaster University.
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Agriculture and horticulture workers
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- Target groups
(Im)migrants workers, Public awareness, Researchers, Unions, and NGOs/community groups/solidarity networks
- Geographical focuses
Ontario and National relevance