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Migrant workers dispute findings of report on abuse
Jamaican labour minister Karl Samuda visits Kai Wiens Family Farms in August of 2022 to learn about the industry and observe working conditions. (File/Richard Harley)

Jamaican government sent team to Canada to investigate claims

 

 

 

Members of a migrant farmworkers group are worried that a report by a Jamaican fact-finding team ignores the concerns of many seasonal workers.

The Jamaican government sent a team to 65 farms in six provinces last fall to look into claims of “systematic slavery” on Canadian farms made by farmworkers enrolled in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. 

The team investigated worker living conditions, the reliability of liaison services, how workers were treated by farm owners, the terms and conditions of employment and the benefits of the program to the workers and their families back at home. 

The report concluded there “is clearly no evidence to support the assertion that the conditions are similar to systematic slavery.”

However, members of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change claim the report doesn’t include all of the facts.  

“The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change hosted two online meetings for the fact-finding team where over 300 workers participated – including farmworkers from at least seven fruit farms in the Niagara Region,” Kit Andres, an organizer with the group in the Niagara Region, said in an email to The Lake Report. 

The two meetings were held in September and October and five members of the fact-finding team were present at the October meeting. 

“In these meetings, Jamaican farm workers unanimously condemned their mistreatment and demanded change,” Andres said.

Workers described being treated poorly by bosses, living in rat- and cockroach-infested houses and being afraid to speak to their employer. 

“The Jamaican fact-finding team’s report does not include any of these voices, focusing instead on a single paper survey completed by just over 400 workers,” said Andres.

The seven-member fact-finding team conducted in-person and telephone interviews with 473 Jamaican workers in Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Quebec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

Out of the 473 workers interviewed, the vast majority – 355 – were in Ontario.

The report shows that 9,249 Jamaican workers were employed in the seasonal workers program across Canada in 2022, with 6,508 at farms in Ontario. 

According to the report, workers have “a positive view of the program” and a sense of pride in the work they do. 

“The report said what we knew — that it’s a good program and there’s really not much wrong with it at all,” said Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, better known as FARMS.

Forth said groups like Migrant Workers Alliance for Change  “make everything up as they go” and “produce chaos.” 

“They will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that they’re all bad employers. They’ll tell you this program is no good. And that’s simply not a fact,” he said. 

Forth said some of his workers are like family and told The Lake Report he even went to Jamaica last November to visit a former worker who had been employed at his farm for 35 years.

“Lots of them (are) like family and they’re part of what we are,” he said. 

Many farmers are tired of being accused of bad things all the time.

“If it was like that, I wouldn’t be doing this job,” he said.

Andres argued that the “main issue is not with the individual ‘bad apple’ workplaces. The problem is Canada’s current immigration system that facilitates migrant exploitation and denies workers the ability to protect themselves.”

The alliance “is a democratic, migrant-led, membership-based group in which migrant members are building and leading the organization from the ground up,” Andres told The Lake Report.

In the Jamaican government report, about 87 per cent of participants across Canada said their experience in the seasonal agricultural program ranged from fair to excellent and about 12 per cent said their experience was bad or very bad. 

In Ontario, about 6.6 per cent of participants said they had a negative experience on their farm, about 19 per cent said their experience was fair and 73 per cent said their experience ranged from good to excellent. 

When it came to living conditions, more than 70 per cent of participants gave positive reviews. About 24 per cent said there were slight improvements. 

In Niagara-on-the-Lake, over the past few years, several farmers have renovated or built new bunkhouses for their seasonal farm workers. 

The fact-finders’ research also contained interviews with employers whose farms were visited and their perspectives, many of whom reported a high return rate of workers in Ontario.

“Several of the employers noted that 85 to 90 per cent of Jamaican workers were returning to them, some of them being engaged for 10 or more years,” the report said.

The fact-finding team did acknowledge some issues that needed to be addressed, such as proper access to health care and issues with the Jamaican Liaison Service.

The service is staffed by Jamaican government employees based in Canada to ensure the well-being of workers and to make sure the seasonal agricultural program runs smoothly.

They also found washers and dryers to be a problem on some farms, noting that the “number of units was inconsistent with the number of workers who had to use them.”

In Ontario, 57.3 per cent of surveyed workers said they were satisfied with the Jamaican Liaison Service, while 42.7 per cent said they were not. 

Those who were not satisfied expressed lack of accessibility, responsiveness and interaction with workers. 

When members of the fact-finding team spoke with Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, the group claimed many farmworkers who reach out to their liaison officer do not receive support.

The team also found some workers had trouble getting proper health care while in Canada.

About 38.8 per cent of 374 participants said they sought health care, however about 10 per cent reported they didn’t get access to health care when they asked for it.

Marcia Bolt Williams, communications manager for the Jamaican Ministry of Labour and Social Security, said the “Liaison Service is being strengthened to ensure adequate coverage of the workers. ”

The team made a list of 27 recommendations.

Increasing funding for health care, improving liaison services, ensuring that workers are always provided with the correct safety equipment, and only permitting farms with acceptable rankings to participate in the program were among the recommendations.

 

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