Temporary workers in Canada 'without rights'
Guatemalan farmer back in Canada, but this time to speak about treatment of migrant workers
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The farmer from Guatemala would like to be working on a Canadian farm for several months, harvesting cabbage and peppers, and earning triple the money he could make back home.
Sicajau did just that four years in a row through a joint Canada-Guatemala program to bring seasonal workers to Canadian farms. He was one of tens of thousands of labourers on whom the agriculture sector relies to produce its crops.
But Sicajau says that in 2006 Guatemalan officials told him he was blacklisted from the seasonal workers program because he spoke up about the physical abuse of a fellow labourer at a farm in Quebec. Now, he is one of three Guatemalans touring Canada, speaking to elected officials, unions and journalists to spread word about the weaknesses and dangers of Canada’s hugely popular temporary worker program.
Travelling with him are Father Juan Luis Carbajal, who works with migrants in Guatemala, and migration and asylum specialist Diego Lorente of the Project Counselling Service, a Latin American non-governmental organization.
“This is a call to Canadians to reflect on what can happen in a society when more and more of the workers contributing to the society are not treated equally as others,” said Lorente, a lawyer by training. “People are being treated like cheap labour, without rights. Initially it can seem to be advantageous to the economy of Canada … but it can only lead to more and more serious violations of human rights, which will affect all the workers here.”
Under the Conservative government, the use of temporary foreign workers has increased at a much faster rate than the number of permanent residents admitted to Canada, to the point that there are now more permits issued for temporary workers every year than for permanent residents. The government has four separate programs for low-skilled labour, including the Live-in Caregiver Program and the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), and determines quotas largely in response to demand from employers.
In 2011, there were slightly more than 300,000 temporary workers in Canada. In the Ottawa area, it’s estimated there are 4,622 temporary workers, the vast majority of them live-in caregivers such as nannies.
In Ontario, only the live-in caregiver program can lead to permanent residency in Canada. “All other streams are ‘permanently temporary’,” according to a report earlier this year by the independent Metcalf Foundation, which found Canada’s legal and regulatory framework for the temporary workers programs to be weak, leaving workers vulnerable to abuse. The report outlined systemic problems, including corruption among private recruiters in the countries of origin and the failure on the part of some Canadian employers to pay overtime, or provide labourers with safety training or proper equipment.
The Metcalf Foundation report called for the creation of an oversight body to monitor working conditions for migrant labourers and education to ensure they know their rights.
Speaking in Ottawa last week, Sicajau said he was under constant pressure from his employer once he arrived at the Quebec farm in 2003.
“The farmer was always there behind us wanting more and more,” said Sicajau. “If the quota was to fill 10 cases of produce and we did it, he’d say, ‘Two more,’ and then two more. … We often had to work overtime and got no additional pay for it.”
In July 2006, Sicajau was part of a group installing an irrigation system. He says his employer became frustrated at the way it was being done, grabbed a piece of aluminum pipe and hit a Mexican worker hard on the leg. The Mexican reported the incident to the union local, and Sicajau agreed to sign an affidavit about what he had witnessed.
The next year, when Sicajau applied to return to Canada for another season, the recruiter in Guatemala asked him to sign a statement retracting much of what he’d said in the first affidavit. When Sicajau refused, he was told he was no longer welcome in the program. Although the Mexican program allows workers to return to Canada with new employers, the joint Canadian-Guatemalan program requires workers to remain with the same employer, which leaves the labourers at the mercy of the goodwill of the employer, according to Bill Fairbairn of InterPares.
Pointing to the death of a Canadian truck driver and 10 farm labourers from Peru in a crash near Stratford, Ont., last year, Fairbairn noted that the tragedy was the first many Canadians learned about the use of migrant labour.
“Many Canadians are unaware of the scope of these programs, and it’s only when something happens — like the death of the Peruvian workers — that people start to see it.”
Guatemala started its migrant worker program with Canada in 2003 with just 215 workers. Now, roughly 6,000 farm workers come from Guatemala every year, and tens of thousands more from Mexico and Jamaica.
Sicajau and other migrant workers formed a group to advocate for the rights of seasonal labourers, but Sicajau says he and a fellow organizer received threatening phone calls earlier this year after appearing in Guatemalan media to talk about the issue. The call to his colleague was specific and included personal information about his family. The colleague soon left the organization.
Fairbairn believes that with little oversight, the SAWP has become “a race to the bottom” between different source countries.
“Before they even leave Guatemala, the workers are told, ‘Don’t go near the unions, don’t go near any faith-based organizations, don’t talk about this stuff or you’ll be put back on the plane’,” said Fairbairn.
“People want fresh food, but they don’t think about the conditions in which the food arrives on their table. … It’s not that all farmers are exploiting the migrant workers, but there’s a systemic problem when … your existence depends on the goodwill of the employer.”
Competing for skilled immigrants
Canada, it turns out, might not be the centre of the universe when it comes to attracting foreign students and skilled immigrants. It’s cold, for one, and, more importantly, the competition from other countries is becoming fierce.
Canada can no longer count on choosing from qualified candidates lining up to get in, and that means it must work harder to attract both skilled immigrants and students. Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist for CIBC, put it this way recently: “The truth of the situation is that they’re not lining up any more. We used to be able to select from a large pool of applicants, and now we need them to select us. If you’re an engineer in China or Brazil, you have a good life. Why come and freeze in Canada, right?”
It’s a lesson that the federal government must act on by doing a better job of attracting, and keeping them. Canada relies on international students and skilled immigrants and will do so increasingly in coming years.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said something similar recently to the Globe and Mail: The competition for skilled immigrants, he said, will become heated. That is the case with international students, as well, who represent a financial boost to universities and also bring skills and expertise to Canada — and often turn into skilled immigrants. A report commissioned by the federal government and tabled earlier this year advised it to double the number of international students coming to Canada. The report called International Education, a Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity drew a direct line between attracting international students and filling shortages in the labour market.
But competition for those students has become much tougher in recent years with countries such as India creating new universities and vying to keep their students at home and attract other students from around the world. And there is evidence that Canada is doing a poor job of attracting students. A recent Ipsos-Reid survey to “gather insights to support the further development of the ‘Imagine Education in Canada’ brand” came up with some sobering findings. They include that Canada is not a “top-of-mind destination” for students in China and India. And this: “There is no awareness that Canada has world-class educational establishments, indeed, apart from a few mentions of University of Toronto there is very little awareness of any Canadian educational establishments.”
There is plenty of work to be done to even put Canada on the map for international students, which is worrisome. And news this week that Patrik Rorsman, a British scientist lured to the University of Alberta with a $10-million Canada Excellence Research Chair, has left the post and returned home won’t help Canada’s reputation as a destination for education.
Which doesn’t mean the high-profile research chair program has not been successful in attracting top international researchers to Canada. Among CERC chairs is British neuroscientist Adrian Owen, who was in the news this week because he led a team able to communicate with a man thought to be in a vegetative state. Owen leads the research team at the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario.
Still, Rorsman’s loss underlined some of the challenges in attracting scholars, students and immigrants to Canada in a competitive market. He left, in part, because his wife had problems locating in Edmonton. But he also had issues with its isolation and weather. “It is quite a nice place … but they suffer from the climate.”