Between the wildfire smoke, the pandemic and systemic marginalization it has been a difficult season for migrant farm workers in the Thompson-Nicola. Each year, hundreds of people leave their families back home to work in this region growing vegetables, irrigating fields and picking the fruit we all enjoy so much. A growing number of workers arrive from places like Guatemala, Mexico and Jamacia under streams in Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program which permit them to work for as little as a couple months, but up to two years. Their permits are tied to a single employer and do not allow them to change workplaces, including in cases of alleged abuse or poor working conditions. Furthermore, there is no pathway to citizenship within these programs and many come to Canada in this permanently temporary status for their entire working life.
As it stands now, this is a system that marginalizes workers while providing a consistent supply of cheap labour to farm owners. This dynamic has become especially clear in this era of COVID-19. Over the last two seasons, workers in this region have faced an increased risk of contracting the disease in crowded bunkhouses and difficulty accessing health care without provincial medical coverage or formal translation services. There have also been efforts by several farm owners to restrict the movement of workers (who most often work in remote locations and do not have a vehicle) by dramatically reducing or at times, cancelling trips into town and asking that workers stay on farm for the duration of their work permit.
At the same time, these workers have kept the farms (and our local food systems) alive during a period of intense demand for product and an unprecedented labour shortage. Farm owners have been able to pay minimum wage for a skilled workforce who can work long hours and are legally-speaking, unable to change employers. While it is certainly not every employer in the region who takes advantage of this unequal power dynamic, several do and the impact is devastating on workers. Since the pandemic began, there has been a marked increase locally in workers reporting employer abuse, involuntary repatriation, poor working conditions and limited access to basic needs.
While there has been some more talk about a need for reform at all levels of government, meaningful change has been non-existent on the ground. Formal inspections of worksites have gone mostly virtual during the pandemic and attempts at policy changes have been shallow in their approach. New provincial systems in B.C. for registering employers of temporary foreign workers have been designed with no way to vet bad employers while federal protections have never attempted to address the structural aspects of this program. Despite years of workers publicly demanding an end to the policies that make them most vulnerable, such as permits tied to a single employer, the program remains largely unchanged since its inception in the 1960s.
This is not the first or the only time that Canada has come to rely on racialized labour. From the fur trade, to the railroads, to the domestic worker schemes of the mid-1900s, this country has a long history of programs that are built to benefit the Canadian economy with little regard for the well-being of those who actually do the work. As a society, we need to recognize that these types of exploitative labour systems continue and that significant change is needed if we want to live in a just society.
Especially for those of us who are engaged in discussions around local agriculture, we must work to see the function good labour practices must play in any truly sustainable solutions. There are obviously many reforms we can call for at the policy level, but there are also things we can do in the everyday. This begins with recognizing that migrant farm workers are an essential part of this community and connecting with them to ensure their voice is central in our efforts for stronger local food systems. These relationships will help inform a path forward that can honour the important role these workers play and ultimately, lead to solutions that can take us somewhere better.