By SK & MB
In the capitalist system labour is viewed as yet another commodity that can be traded and exploited. Wages are paid for labour-power and hours worked but in some circumstances, like the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SWAP), contracted wage agreements and working conditions are not a guarantee.
As participants in UFCW Canada’s Youth Internship Program we were part of a contingent who went to Simcoe, Ontario to learn more about the SAWP. We visited farms, talked to workers and farm owners, with an objective of investigating the issues and introducing workers to the Agricultural Workers Alliance (AWA) action centre in Simcoe.
As a union contingent we organized a BBQ to celebrate the workers struggles and get more information into the hardships of the work, abuses in the SAWP program and generally agitate workers to organize themselves and talk about their working-conditions. We wanted to highlight workers’ value to the region, and to bridge the gap between the migrant workers and the larger community. The information in this article is based on our investigations.
Some of the issues we uncovered while visiting workers at their homes, meeting them in the community and visiting their workplaces are how employer friendly the program is. Some of the daily abuses include:
workers being frequently repatriated for demanding their rights. No enforced third-party regulatory system for health, safety, and labour regulations. Workers pay their employers rent for housing that is usually substandard and overcrowded.
Stories from the workers we met show that we cannot depend on individual farm owners to ‘do the right thing.’ We need to create a system of fairness where standards are regulated and monitored. Migrant workers are not familiar with Canadian laws and are given no paths to educate themselves. Through investigation, we discovered many workers who took home only $5 of the $10.25 per hour they are told they will receive.
Furthermore, many of the Latin American workers are not fully confident in the English language which means they can’t read WSIB and caution signs in their workplaces. It requires a huge effort for them to educate themselves on the rules, regulations and rights of agricultural workers in Canada.
When a worker attempts to educate themselves, or inquires about the many deductions on their paychecks, they are putting their jobs at risk. When workers turn to organizations that will assist them with their issues consulates from countries like Jamaica and Mexico often warn workers that the people at the Agricultural Workers Alliance (AWA) are dangerous and only intend to take their money. In reality the AWA helps workers apply for the benefits they contribute to and also assists the workers with ESL courses so they can better understand their rights. This program is further evidence of the growing systemic pattern where the race to the bottom is both legislated and supported by governments. Workers are easily replaced by the millions of other workers all over the world who are just waiting to be picked, and are just as quickly disposed of. If an individual proves to be vocal, entitled, or motivated they are easily replaced and forgotten.
The union compares the SAWP to the indentured labour practices of the 19th century but even worse in this program there is no pathway to citizenship. Agricultural work is not valued by the Canadian immigration system and when workers in the program apply to immigrate they find that the point system values education, and capital for investment, not the time and sacrifice farm workers have already made. The fight against the current SAWP program is a fight for good jobs and for sustainable communities. There are organizations fighting to improve standards and to eliminate the systemic circumstances that allow violations to occur.
Good jobs in sustainable communities that respect workers are rare in most sectors and employees must race to the bottom simply to ensure they are employed and hopefully in a slightly better financial situation. Organizations like SAME (Students Against Migrant Exploitations), AWA (Agricultural Workers Alliance), Migrante, and the Workers Action Centre are all part of this battle for improved standards. We encourage you to find out more about these organizations and assist them in their struggles for justice.