Racism, Present: Temporary Workers

By Kelli Korducki

For years, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change has called for reforms of Canada's temporary worker programs. We talked to Chris Ramsaroop from the Alliance about the challenges faced by migrant workers in Ontario today, and what activists think needs to be changed.

In Ontario, how much of the agricultural industry's labour force is comprised of migrant workers?

Chris Ramsaroop: It's anywhere between 10 and 20 per cent. The last estimate was that there are about 100,000 migrant workers in Ontario, and about 20,000 come in through the seasonal agricultural workers program. Then there are another 5,000 to 10,000 who may come in through the low-skilled worker program.

Where do most of these workers come from?

From the seasonal agricultural worker program, about 50 per cent come from Mexico. The rest come from the Caribbean, with Jamaica being the largest group. With the other temporary foreign worker program, we've been dealing with people from Guatemala, Honduras, Thailand, and the Philippines.

What's the legal status of most migrant workers in Ontario now?

When we use this discourse of indentureship, it's not just rhetoric. People are really tied to an employer, and they don't have the ability to simply go and find other work in Ontario or anywhere in Canada. Programs for so-called “low skilled” workers are employer-driven, meaning that these are the only way these workers can come to Canada.

People who come to work in mushroom facilities, Dairy Queen, Tim Hortons, those types of workers—they're all tied to an employer. The people who come in through the seasonal agricultural worker program, to work on the farms, are also tied to an employer. Live-in caregivers are also tied to an employer. They have to undergo a whole series of hurdles to enjoy the rights that Canadians enjoy—and in many cases, they can't.

Also, users of the low-skilled worker program and the seasonal migrant worker program can never apply for residency. We have people who have been working 20, 25 years in Canada, and none of that contribution matters. All the contributions made through our agricultural economy are not considered in residency applications.

Are there exceptions? No. The only exception would be if they married a Canadian. On their own, no. There's no way.

You have said that temporary work programs force immigrants, and especially immigrants of color, into vulnerable positions. How does race play into the current system?

Most of the work we do is with farm workers. For myself, it's no coincidence that the same people who [historically] worked as slaves and indentured labourers in the Caribbean, Mexico and the United States, are occupying very similar positions here in Canada.

When we're looking at systemic discrimination or racism, we're not looking at intention of the government but at the impact. For migrant workers who can never apply for residency, who are defined as low-skilled, the idea of race and racialization is central to the expansion of temporary foreign worker programs

What are the hurdles most commonly faced by Ontario migrant workers within the current system?

The first answer is that there are good and bad employers. The problem is, when you tie somebody to an employer, it denies people the ability to defend their rights. So, for example, if people want to complain about health and safety or employment standards violations, they're going to think twice, because they know that if they do complain they're going to lose their jobs, and on top of that, they're going to be sent home.

Then there are issues in agriculture, where people are denied overtime pay, and there are issues around health and safety violations and minimum wage violations.

I wish I was bullshitting you when I was telling you that some people are getting six, seven bucks an hour when they should be making $10.25.

Is there any way of checking up on employers and enforcing labour standards?

No. The way that our system works is that most action is complaints-driven. This means, we have to go file a complaint. What we call proactive inspections—staff inspections and anonymous complaints—is what the government should be doing.

In September, the charitable Metcalf Foundation released an extensive report on migrant workers in Ontario, recommending that they be granted immigration status on arrival to guarantee access to basic rights and protections. Read it  here . More information on Justice for Migrant workers can be found here.