Justice for Migrant Farm Workers

Guest worker programs refer to the “importation of temporary labour under specific conditions” (Sawchuk and Kempf  2008:492). These programs have originated within the agricultural sectors in core capitalist countries, such as Canada (Sawchuk and Kempf 2008:494). In Canada, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) is a guest worker program that permits employers facing labour shortages to access “just in time” workers to work in the agricultural field (Encalada 2006). The SAWP program is built on formal agreements with origin countries, with the idea of “labour market complementarity and bilateral co-operation that provides benefits to all” (Preibisch and Binford 2007:9). Although the intention of these bilateral agreements is to provide benefits to “all participants”, guest workers are not benefiting.

Since the rural communities in their home countries are economically devastated, the guest workers are left with no choice but to seek transnational employment as a means of supporting their families.  Foreign workers in the SAWP program are brought to Canada for periods of six weeks to eight months (Encalada 2006). The employer pays for seasonal substandard “run-down” housing and they pay the workers an average of $8.50 an hour for dangerous and strenuous farm work (Encalada 2006:23). The foreign workers must make contributions to income tax, Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance, and Workers’ Compensation, from which they cannot claim (Encalada 2006).  Although workers are entitled to basic health coverage in participating provinces, most workers do not have access to these programs (Encalada 2006). In Ontario, farm workers are excluded from the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which means they have no protection if they become sick or injured (Encalada 2006). If workers refuse work due to unsafe conditions and if they become seriously injured from these dangerous work conditions, it can cost them their contract and they will be repatriated (Encalada 2006). Every year there are numerous deaths and serious injuries as a result of dangerous work conditions (Encalada 2006).

Justicia for Migrant Farm Workers (J4MW) is a grass-roots organization that is “committed to advancing the rights of migrant workers and building ties between all agricultural workers” (Basok 2004:60). Their mandate is to “organize migrant farm workers as a united front with minimal risk of repatriation” (Encalada 2006:24). J4MW’s tactics involve applying pressure through media coverage of workers’ conditions with the help of migrant communities and fighting against structural conditions that produce “unfree labour” (Encalada 2006:25). They also combat hierarchical organizing tactics that are prominent in the labour movement and offer a space to develop community organizing skills, while allowing migrant farm workers to have agency and voices of their own (Encalada 2006). As a host country, Canada fails to treat these workers as “guests”. J4MW provides an avenue for migrant workers to dissent against the government’s objective of “cheap labour” by forming an organized front that targets the power structures that serve to keep the workers as “temporary” bodies, and treat them as such. By informing them of their rights, J4MW encourages migrant workers to use their knowledge to raise consciousness and create change.  In my upcoming posts, I will show how J4MW has successfully managed to give agency to migrant workers through their collective acts of dissent, and the significance of this organization for understanding the criminalization of dissent.

 

References

Basok, Tanya. 2004. “Post-national Citizenship, Social Exclusion and Migrant Rights: Mexican Seasonal Workers in Canada.” Citizenship Studies 8(1):47-64.

Encalada, Evelyn G. 2006. “Justice for Migrant Farm Workers: Reflections on the Importance of Community Organising.” Relay, July/August, 23-25.

Preibisch, Kerry and Leigh Binford. 2007. “Interrogating Racialized Global Labour Supply: An Exploration of the Racial/National Replacement of Foreign Agricultural Workers in Canada.” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 44(1):5-36.

Sawchuk, Peter H. and Arlo Kempf. 2008. “Guest Worker Programs and Canada: Towards a Foundation for Understanding the Complex Pedagogies of Transnational Labour.” Journal of Workplace Learning 20(7/8):492-502.

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