Guests often treated badly

On July 31, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Monte Solberg announced a federal initiative aimed at speeding up recruitment of foreign workers by establishing “temporary foreign worker units”  in Calgary and Vancouver. Effective Friday (September 1), these units will provide hiring advice to employers.

The issue of temporary or “guest”  worker programs erupted into major protests in the U.S. this year. Temporary foreign workers in Canada include those under the Live-in Caregiver Program and the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, and those who qualify under certain exemptions.

Though popular with employers, unions and civil-rights activists oppose guest-worker programs. Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy has declared that migrant farm workers are “America's New Plantation Workers” .

Business groups in Alberta and B.C. are welcoming Solberg's announcement, saying it will help address labour shortages. However, it is unclear whether the shortage is due to difficult working conditions in certain sectors or whether there is even a shortage of available labour. On November 13, 2004, the London Free Press reported: “In Canada, farm- related deaths per 100,000 are nearly four times higher than the rate for all industries combined.” 

On May 19, 2006, the B.C. Federation of Labour issued a news release concerning the contract termination and forced repatriation of a Mexican farmworker after he made allegations about dangerous working conditions at Golden Eagle Farms in Pitt Meadows. Marcos Baac was employed under the SAWP, which brings 18,000 migrant workers to Canadian farms every year.

Around 1900, as family farms expanded into larger commercial operations, the Canadian government began accepting British children, mostly orphaned boys, to provide farm labour. From 1942 to 1946, many prisoners of war and interned Japanese Canadians were forced to work on farms. In 1968, the federal government implemented the SAWP.

A 2006 study by the Ottawa-based North-South Institute concluded that although Canadian law theoretically protects foreign workers, in practice it is difficult for investigations to occur given the workers' temporary status. Common problems documented amongst SAWP workers included low wages, long hours with no overtime pay, unsafe working conditions, and unhealthy accommodations.

Nandita Sharma, author of Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of “Migrant Workers”  in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2005), told the Straight, “What motivates the Canadian government to recruit temporary workers is that migrant workers are essentially indentured servants bound to specific employers and do not have minimum-wage and work-condition protections, cannot effectively unionize, and cannot access most social programs.” 

On June 1, 2006, the British Columbia and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council issued a statement to then–labour minister Mike de Jong detailing the treatment of 60 temporary foreign workers employed for the Canada Line (RAV) construction. The letter claims that workers were paid less than $5 per hour and were required to work 54-66 hours per week with no overtime pay. In an interview with the Straight, BCYT-BCTC executive director Wayne Peppard stated, “The government is listening to business communities, who have asked for the door to be open to lower wages.” 

Adriana Paz with Vancouver's Justice for Migrant Workers believes it is crucial for Canadians to examine the root causes of migration. “It is not simply about immigration or labour policy,”  she told the Straight. “We must look at global economic policies. NAFTA, which required Mexico to eliminate subsidies and privatize communal lands, has displaced 1.5 million Mexican farmers. At the same time, NAFTA has solidified the SAWP in Canada. These parallel processes have created a sector of dispossessed and exploitable migrant workers with limited rights and precarious legal status.” 

The UN introduced the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in 1990. Canada has not yet signed it.