Farmworkers relegated to second-class status: study

Proposed changes would end exploitation of BC’s immigrant and migrant farmworkers
June 18, 2008

(Vancouver) A new study of farm work in BC reveals systematic violations of employment standards and health and safety regulations, poor and often dangerous working conditions, and dismal enforcement by government agencies. The study’s authors propose comprehensive policy changes that would ensure farmworkers — most of whom are immigrants and temporary migrants — are no longer relegated to second-class status.

“Farmworkers are at the mercy of a complex and confusing system that exploits, threatens and silences them while putting their lives in danger,” says study co-author Arlene McLaren, Professor Emerita of Sociology at Simon Fraser University.

The study draws from numerous sources, including interviews with key informants in government and the farm industry, interviews with 53 Indo-Canadian immigrant and Mexican migrant farmworkers, a survey 87 Mexican migrant farmworkers, and a review of better practices in other jurisdictions. The study is part of the Economic Security Project, a joint initiative of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Simon Fraser University.

Among the key findings:

  • Farmworkers are routinely exposed to pesticides, gases used for ripening in greenhouses, and other chemicals without appropriate protective gear or training.
  • Immigrant farmworkers are regularly transported by farm labour contractors in vans that violate safety regulations. Participants worried about their safety, but depend on contractors’ vans to get to and from work. They did not report vehicle or other safety violations for fear of losing their jobs.
  • Health and safety standards are routinely violated. For example, nearly 1 in 4 survey respondents rarely or never had access to a washroom on the worksite, and one in three rarely or never had access to any water for hand washing.
  • Since 2001, inspection reports by Worksafe BC in the agricultural sector plummeted by 62% and prevention orders dropped by 73%. Not a single participant recalled seeing a visit by Worksafe BC.
  • Farmworkers’ average earnings are just over $8 per hour with no overtime pay, and many piece rate workers make less than minimum wage. Yet participants reported working brutally long hours — 10–12 hours per day, 6–7 days a week.
  • The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), a federal-provincial program BC joined in 2004, brings a growing number of primarily Mexican migrant workers to Canada under conditions that amount to indentured servitude. Migrant workers are often housed in substandard conditions, are not allowed to choose who they will work for, and cannot stand up for their basic rights without fear of being sent home.

“These aren’t exceptions or a few frightening anecdotes,” says Mark Thompson, a co-author and Professor Emeritus with UBC’s Sauder School of Business who headed up a commission on employment standards in the 1990s. “These are common, everyday situations in which farmworkers’ basic human rights are abused.”

“We shouldn’t subsidize this industry on the backs of the most vulnerable workers,” says Charan Gill, CEO of Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society. “It’s time for the province to step up and ensure decent conditions for farmworkers.”

Jim Sinclair, President of the BC Federation of Labour, says the province should start by restoring basic employment standards for farmworkers, which were rolled back in 2002 and 2003. “Farmworkers should have the same rights as the rest of us. The government also needs to beef up inspections at farm sites and restore proactive monitoring teams like the Agricultural Compliance Team.”

David Fairey, a labour economist and co-author of the study argues the government should also scrap the private farm labour contracting system in favour of a non-profit hiring hall model. “Having an exclusive, regulated, and dependable supplier of labour would be a win-win for farmers and farmworkers. It would also provide safe transportation, and avoid another tragic van crash.”

Christina Hanson, co-author of the study, emphasizes the hiring hall system should be extended to migrant workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. “Right now, migrant workers come to Canada tied to a specific employer, which creates an impossible power imbalance.”

“The federal government needs to restructure the SAWP so that employers can no longer arbitrarily send workers home, and to allow migrant workers to apply for permanent resident status,” says Adriana Paz, an organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers. “It should also coordinate with other levels of government to establish and enforce decent working and living conditions.”


Cultivating Farmworker Rights: Ending the Exploitation of Immigrant and Migrant Farmworkers in BC was released jointly by CCPA, Justicia for Migrant Workers, Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society (PICS) and the BC Federation of Labour.

The Economic Security Project is funded primarily by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Download the full study at To arrange an interview, call Terra Poirier at 604-801-5121 x229.