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Seasonal farm workers are speaking out over what they describe as inhumane treatment from their Canadian employers.
Mexican agricultural workers have written an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president of Mexico, outlining conditions they say they face working in the Canadian agriculture industry.
“For more than half a century, our well-being has not been thought of and we are still treated as disposable objects for employers,” the workers wrote in their open letter.
About 47 workers from 40 different farms across Canada collaborated on the Nov. 8 letter, but only 26 signed their names.
Of the 26 who signed, one was from a Niagara-on-the-Lake vineyard.
One of the demands from workers is permanent status for all, including for seasonal workers who come to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.
“Employers threaten to fire us, deport us and kick us out of the program. Without permanent status, employers have the power to get rid of us whenever they please as if they owned us,” the workers said in the letter.
Some workers have been coming to Canada for upward of 20 years, but only have temporary status. They say this can make it hard for them to defend their rights.
“There’s always the fear of being sent back or not coming back next season,” said Luisa Ortiz-Garza, an organizer with Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, who worked closely with the workers to produce the open letter.
The workers are also members of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.
According to Leonel Nava, a Mexican worker who works at a Christmas tree farm in Nova Scotia, about 10 workers have been deported since September for speaking up about their concerns at his farm.
“The mistreatment or abuse of temporary foreign workers is unacceptable,” a spokesperson from the office of federal employment minister Carla Qualtrough said in an email to The Lake Report.
“The experiences detailed in this letter from Mexican migrant workers are disturbing and inhumane.”
Qualtrough’s ministry oversees Employment and Social Development Canada and the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program falls under its jurisdiction.
“Our government is working closely with all partners to improve this program and ensure that workers are protected at all times,” the ministry spokesperson said.
This open letter comes not long after workers from Jamaica wrote and signed a separate letter to the Jamaican and Canadian governments in August, outlining what they described as “systemic slavery.”
“They got really inspired (by) that letter and also they wanted to show unity,” said Ortiz-Garza.
One of the demands made by workers is for the Canadian government to implement a national housing standard across the country.
One of the most common complaints Ortiz-Garza heard from employees was about their living conditions.
“We sleep in bunk beds with bed bugs, in houses full of rats, sharing the bathroom with more than 10 people. We have no privacy,” the workers wrote.
Nava worked in British Columbia from 2014 until 2021, but wasn’t invited back by his employer after he raised some concerns about his living conditions.
“My house was destroyed by a fire, then he sent me to live in a basement without (a) washroom,” said Nava.
The employer put three other workers in a hotel after the fire but Nava and another worker had to live in a basement.
“I complain about that. He don’t apply for me anymore,” he added.
Nava now shares a house with about 20 people in Nova Scotia, with five to a room. They share everything, he said.
Living with so many people makes it difficult for Nava to have a private call with his wife and two children back home in Mexico. He doesn’t see them for half the year.
The letter described the inability to communicate privately with their families back home as “humiliating.”
Qualtrough’s spokesperson said this year she “convened two meetings with provincial and territorial governments, international governments, migrant worker organizations, and other partners to improve the regulations around accommodation” for temporary foreign workers.
Workers are also asking for open work permits, so they can easily switch farms, and for a system where workers can report abusive employers anonymously.
“The abuse at work that we experience is inhumane. We have to endure shouting, racist comments (and) insults,” the workers said in their open letter.
Employment and Social Development Canada operates a confidential telephone tip line in more than 200 different languages so that workers can report employers for wrongdoings.
But sometimes workers aren’t told about the tip line, said Kit Andres from Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.
Other demands outlined in the letter included better job security, access to the benefits they pay for, better protection from Mexican consulates, the ability to represent themselves during contract negotiations and being better informed about the contracts they sign.
Workers want to be able to decide their own futures and if a new opportunity shows up, be able to take it, said Nava.
Canadian citizens can choose where they want to work, said Nava.
“We can’t,” he said.
Along with the open letter, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change released a video that details some of the conditions outlined in the letter.
The annual review of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program between Canada and Mexico took place between Nov. 28 and 30.
Somer Slobodian, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report
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Canada, Ontario, Alberta, México, Manitoba, Quebec, Colombie-Britannique, Autres provinces, Fédéral, Nouvelle-Écosse et National relevance