At the Mercy of Their Bosses

Seasonal farm workers exploited, denied rights and benefits
October 1, 2009

Imagine having to leave your family for up to eight months at a time to work in another country. You speak a different language than your boss. You live where you work and can never leave or receive visitors without your boss’s permission. If you dare raise any concerns, you could lose your job and be sent home.

This is Diego’s story. (We have changed his name in order to protect his identity.) Diego -- and approximately 400 people like him -- come to Manitoba each summer through the Seasonal Workers Agricultural Program (SWAP), a federal arrangement between Canada and Mexico (and various other countries) initiated in 1964.

The well-being of Manitoba’s seasonal workers is almost entirely at the whim of their employer. Most are paid the bare minimum wage. Despite the long hours, there is no overtime pay. Part of the cost of their travel to Canada is deducted from their pay-cheques.

The workers pay Employment Insurance and taxes, but are denied access to EI benefits, health care, and the other benefits their income taxes help support. Seasonal workers are not covered by Manitoba Health Insurance.

Although some workers have spent most of their working life contributing to the Canadian economy—up to 25 years in some cases—they are not allowed to become permanent residents or citizens. At any time they may be sent home, if they are injured, if the employer decides there is not enough work -- or if they dare to talk to a union organizer.

A group of SWAP workers at Mayfair Farms in Portage La Prairie did manage to join the United Food and Commercial Workers’ union a few years ago, but their victory was short-lived. As reported in the media, a majority of them recently voted to have the union decertified.

What the media reports didn’t mention were the threats and intimidation the workers were subjected to, both during the organizing period and after the union was certified. At least one strong union supporter was denied return to Mayfair Farms this year.

The day before the decertification vote, the Mexican Consul—who has a vested interest in keeping workers in Canada, as their remittances are a major source of national income -- held a closed-door meeting with the workers at Mayfair Farms. Earlier in the summer, he had visited all farms with seasonal agricultural workers in Manitoba, warning them that, if they decided to join or form a union, they would be blacklisted.

The lack of permanent status, the ever-present threat of being sent home, their isolation, and their inability to communicate in either official language leave them among the most exploited of Canadian workers. Yet they keep coming back. As Diego explains, “I know I’m exploited here, but at least if I work here my children eat. At home I’m exploited and my children don’t eat.”

Workers are keen to get as many hours of work as they can while they are in Canada—up to 110 hours a week. A major gain for the unionized workers (while they had a union) had been the equal distribution of overtime hours. Without a union, in periods of work shortages, only those workers closest to the boss, such as crew foremen, would work overtime. With a union, overtime hours were shared equally. The union contract also ensured that workers who became sick received needed care instead of being sent home.

Unfortunately, the important gains that the unionized workers achieved were offset by the employer’s decision to undermine the union by reducing the work week to a maximum of 70 hours. This meant that workers lost up to 30% of their income, a move Mayfair Farms knew would be devastating for workers trying to send as much money as possible to their impoverished families. This was a very effective strategy in reducing union support prior to the decertification vote.

To the credit of the current provincial government, agricultural workers are finally included under Employment Standards legislation. This grants them protections such as minimum wage, a day of rest, and vacation pay. Workers’ compensation is also now compulsory for agricultural workers. The new Worker Recruitment Act, the first of its kind in Canada, ensures that anyone hiring migrant workers must be registered with the Employment Standards Branch.

But there is much more to be done. Workers should have immediate access to Medicare. The government should closely monitor conditions at farms using seasonal workers. Immediate measures should be taken to end blatant union-busting and give workers the right to appeal a dismissal before being repatriated. They should also have full coverage under Manitoba Labour Standards legislation, including the right to overtime and holiday pay, and the right to a working visa that would not bind them to a single employer.

Perhaps most importantly, workers like Diego and their families should be allowed to become Canadian citizens.

(Jennifer deGroot is a member of a new coalition supporting Manitoba’s seasonal agricultural workers, and a research associate for the CCPA’s Manitoba Office. Gustavo Mejicanos, P.Ag., is Coordinator of the UFCW-Agriculture Workers Alliance Support Centre.)