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Okanagan Fruit Leaves Sour Taste: Temporary Foreign Workers in Agriculture Fighting Back

Originally published at Rebel Youth

This article exposes the myths surrounding Temporary Foreign Workers, the hyper-exploitation and deplorable conditions migrants face, particularly in the agriculture sector. It includes a focus on RAMA – Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture, an anti-racist and decolonial organization that advocates for, supports and works to build community for migrant workers in the Okanagan region of British Columbia.

If you enjoy Kelowna cherries, Oliver wine, or the peaches of Penticton, chances are they were grown and harvested by Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) under the racist, exploitative and demeaning Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), a stream of the TFW program. This program sees hundreds of thousands of workers brought into Canada, resulting in mega profits for business owners, where workers are denied the minimum labour rights that residents and citizens have.

What is it like to be a Temporary Foreign Worker in Canada?

In the recruitment stage, employers can ask for workers of a certain country, gender and age. The labour is highly gendered, with preference given to men for more labourious work. Candidates must have families in their home countries, and they must remain at home so, according to the law, “they have a reason to return home”. For this reason tourist visas are denied to family members who would like to visit, though there is some discussion of changing this rule, but for Mexican workers only.

When workers are recruited to be TFW’s, they must sign up to work for one employer from their home country. They may change employers, but only with permission from their current employer, which leaves them bonded to them in practice for the duration of their stay in Canada. Employers can and do fire them without cause, which is essentially deportation. Because of this, migrants are usually unable to fight back against the unfair treatment and the appalling living and working conditions on the farms. For example, they are often not given proper protection when working with pesticides, nor adequate instruction on health and safety measures. Further, it’s commonplace for workers to do physical labour in the hot sun for 12 to 16 hours a day without overtime pay, with two days off per month.

On top of this, they are not entitled to MSP coverage until three months of work has passed. Then, employers must provide MSP coverage, or alternatively provide private insurance. Most are never enrolled. There are a number of recent cases where workers were injured on the job before they had the right to access health care, where they were denied adequate treatment and promptly deported.

Most live in highly rural areas where they are isolated from the rest of the Canadian population. TFW’s often have curfews, are not permitted to have social gatherings and cannot bring any guests to the farms. Employers purposefully try to make them invisible and do not allow them to integrate into society, to discourage labour organizing, learning English, seeking intervention, and raising the profile of the issues that migrant workers face.

In experiencing all this mistreatment and hyper-exploitation, migrants are then subject to systemic racism and mistrust by the Canadian people. Many Canadians point the finger at TFW’s, some of the most exploited workers in Canada, as the source of our economic problems, rather than the bosses who profit from their exploitation. It is the bosses that undercut wages and right-wing politicians that use anti-TFW and racist rhetoric to pit workers of all statuses against each other, dividing us all. That’s good news for the bosses, who would have us divided rather than organized against them. Furthermore, almost all workers are racialized, and it is common that they experience police harassment when they do leave the farms, adding to their daily oppression and exploitation.

Why are Temporary Foreign Workers Coming to Canada?

The TFW program targets racialized people from colonized nations, where displacement and dispossession from land is systemic. International capital has a strong grip on these nations, as they are continuously exploited by neocolonial and imperialist policies of the North – especially Canada. Many workers have no other choice than to come to Canada as migrant workers, because they and their families continue to be driven off their lands by multinational corporations and wealthy landowners backed by the North. For example, the Mexican agriculture sector has been devastated by NAFTA, where millions of farmers have been driven off their land, unable to compete with cheap subsidized crops dumped into their economy by the US. As well, land is becoming more controlled by agribusiness with cheap crops sold to companies like Walmart and Safeway for consumption in the US and Canada. Because of the vast power of these mega corporations and pressure from Northern capital, working conditions are extremely dangerous and inhumane, where it’s common for workers to make $10 per day. Attempts to organize and demand better are often met with brutal violence.

This history and present allows the interests of Canadian capital to seek out workers from nations in already precarious situations who are looking to improve their living conditions and those of their families. Canadian capital profits twice – in the form of control of land for resource extraction abroad, and again when workers must come here after the loss of their livelihood. Unemployment, lack of opportunities, forced neoliberal austerity by the North, and low wages are all a direct result of foreign control, kept by any means necessary including violence, corruption, and war. Conditions are so bad that workers still choose to leave their families and travel to a new country for hard labour, where their rights are severely limited.

The Fightback

Because of the precariousness of migrant workers, organizing can be extremely difficult. Despite the threat of deportation and blacklisting, many workers are trying to formally organize under the Agriculture Workers Alliance. Further, organizations like RAMA – Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture – are building a grassroots movement to ensure workers coming into Canada have the rights and dignity that every worker should have. RAMA prides itself on being an anti-racist and decolonial advocacy group. In order to address the exploitation of workers in Canada, we must fight against racism and colonization both at home and abroad. These struggles are connected to one another, and unless we unite against single cause of the problems – the capitalist system propped up by imperialist exploitation – we will not get the root of the problem.

Grassroots organizations are connecting these struggles and finding ways to foster self-advocacy. Luis, a collective member of RAMA, noted that, “Many of the workers are already politicized. We are just here to foster community and address problems of alienation on the farms. It’s about creating the space for them to organize themselves, despite the attempts of forced isolation by their employers.”

Temporary Foreign Workers deserve the same rights as Canadian workers, with the right to health and safety, to organize unions, to fair wages and overtime pay, and to change employers. The immediate demands of RAMA and groups like it include instituting a path to citizenship for workers if they so choose, rather than having the constant threat of deportation. Since workers are currently tied to their employers and can be deported without cause, they are often reluctant to report workplace injuries and illness, which do occur given the nature of the work and the difficult conditions dictated by the employers. Currently RAMA steps in, giving rides to doctors, chiropractors, and even to emergency rooms when workers feel they cannot disclose medical issues to their employers; however they are advocating against tied work permits so that migrants can leave unsafe conditions and have open access to medical care the moment they arrive.

Activists everywhere are expressing solidarity with migrant workers and this is a call to action to fight against the injustice imposed by the wealthy bosses exploiting migrant labour. Getting involved in the anti-imperialist and anti-racist movement, workers organizations, or grassroots groups like RAMA are all ways to join the fight!