BC’s food system relies on vulnerable migrant workers; study recommends sweeping changes

November 18, 2015

(Vancouver) A new study finds that citizenship status plays a key role in farmworker safety, and recommends significant changes to immigration policies to protect this vulnerable workforce.

“Many British Columbians are probably unaware that immigrants and migrants make up nearly 100% of our farmworkers,” says Gerardo Otero, lead author of the study. “About half are South Asian immigrants and the other half Mexican migrants. And these workers, especially the migrants, are very vulnerable to exploitation.”

Otero and his team carried out interviews with 200 farmworkers, as well as representatives from industry, advocates and civil servants. They found that most workers are subject to hazardous conditions like unsafe transportation, substandard living conditions, long work hours and dangerous equipment. Employment standards for the agricultural sector are only loosely enforced.

In 2003, 98% of agricultural workers were South Asian immigrants, but as of 2012, fully half are Mexican migrants. These workers are even more vulnerable to exploitation, as they enter Canada with time-limited, employer-specific work permits. Employers have the power to deport workers, or to give them negative evaluations at the end of the season, making it unlikely they will be rehired. Migrants, as opposed to immigrants who are citizens or permanent residents, are not on a path towards citizenship, which would offer some protection from employer abuses.

The study includes a number of recommendations for government and industry, including:

  • Granting immigrant status to farmworkers on arrival; these workers would then have a path to citizenship after three years if they choose to apply.
  • Establishing an employment compliance team, whose mandate would include random spot-checks at worksites to enforce employment standards. Priorities would include safe transportation and housing.
  • Reforming MSP so that agricultural workers receive health coverage immediately upon arrival in Canada—this is already done in Ontario.
  • Registering migrant employers and recruiters, so that they can be held accountable if they violate workers’ rights, as has been done in Manitoba.


For more information and interviews contact Sarah Leavitt at sarah at policyalternatives dot ca or 604-801-5121 x233.