Published in the Vancouver Observer | February 11, 2012 | Circulation 100,000 unique monthly visitors
Hundreds in Stratford, Ontario and Lima, Peru packed memorial services yesterday for 11 Peruvian farm workers killed when their van was struck by a truck in Ontario on Monday.
But the impacts of that tragedy are being felt here in B.C., too. Migrant worker advocates in B.C. told the Vancouver Observer that their community is reeling from the news – a painful reminder of three migrant farm workers killed in 2007 when their van flipped in Abbotsford, and of substandard working conditions for may foreign workers.
Bleak reality for migrant farm workers in B.C.
In the Abbotsford crash, investigators discovered that the van – transporting 16 migrant farm workers – had wooden benches instead of seats, and no seat belts. The accident raised questions about the health and safety of migrant farm workers in B.C., who advocates said face discrimination and unequal protection from hazards. The crash renewed calls to outlaw 15-seater vans commonly used to transport farm workers.
“It’s a tragedy and we really feel it very closely,” said Adriana Paz, with the group Justicia for Migrant Workers. “It really reminds us of other tragedies and fatalities amongst migrant farm workers.
“It is something very, very sad: to see farm workers leaving early in the morning and never coming back to their houses – having to die just because the van wasn’t safe enough, because there were no seat belts, no inspections. These deaths were clearly preventable. Those unnecessary deaths really shake you up – (they happened) simply because the government was not looking, and the industry was not monitored. It’s outrageous.”
Paz told the Vancouver Observer that, in spite of some improvements here in B.C. since 2007 — largely the result of pressure from a coalition of labour and migrant justice organizations – very few farm inspections actually take place and conditions are deteriorating, raising the spectre of future tragedies.
Dangerous working conditions
“Almost every year, we see either traffic accidents or injuries or deaths because of the unsafe working conditions,” Paz said.
She noted that the regulations are not properly enforced in B.C., nor in other parts of Canada
“If you talk to the workers, they’ve hardly seen a health and safety inspector,” she said.
“This is just more heartbreaking news … they came, as many immigrants do, with the illusion of making money, of working hard to support their families. To think they won’t go home anymore is absolutely heartbreaking. It’s not random that this happened, that they were migrant farm workers again… It shows the importance of advocating and pushing the government to actually do their work protecting farm workers. It’s very sad that people have to die in order to improve legislation a little bit.”
A former farm worker and union organizer told the Vancouver Observer that, despite some improvements in legislation regulating farm workers’ transport – which he said only came about after intense activist pressure following the 2007 accident – conditions remain dangerous and exploitative for migrants in the B.C. industry.
“They are discriminated against every day,” said Charan Gill, the current chief executive officer with Surrey’s Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS) and a 30-year farm worker organizer with the Canadian farm workers Union. “In 30 years, I’ve seen small changes by advocating for farm workers’ rights.
“But it’s not sufficient – it’s too slow. Our whole lives are gone fighting and struggling to demand fairness. The government needs to send a message from the top to give a fair deal to the people who put food on your table.”
Fears of deportation
Gill said that one major problem facing migrant farm workers is fears about demanding better working conditions, and forming unions to advocate for their rights. Recently, the United Food and Commercial Workers union alleged that Vancouver’s Mexican consulate is coordinating black-lists of union-sympathetic workers with the agricultural industry, ensuring that migrants who attempt to organize are being denied visas.
“They’re here, but have no right to speak,” Gill said. “They can’t speak because they are afraid of being black-listed. If they try to unionize, they are deported. That’s the way it is.
“The demands we’re making – we want minimum wage, we demand overtime pay, we demand rights like any other worker in B.C. Why are we saying in 2012 that foreign workers are excluded from those rights?”
Labour laws – and health and safety regulations – for migrant workers vary from province to province, Paz explained.
For instance, in B.C. migrant workers have the right to unionize, and – on the books – are entitled to minimum wage. But they have income tax, employment insurance and pension fees deducted even though it is extremely difficult to get access to the benefits; migrant workers are also exempt from overtime pay and statutory holidays. In other provinces, such as Ontario and Alberta, unionizing is forbidden among temporary foreign workers, Paz said.
Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration ministry told CBC News that, “Canadian laws protect every worker in Canada. This includes temporary foreign workers.”
But the dangers faced by hundreds of thousands of temporary foreign workers are underlined by a history of deadly accidents. In the wake of the 2007 crash, B.C.’s coroner released a list of recommendations for improvements, some of which were enshrined in legislation. That included:
- mandatory seat belts
- safety inspections
- a website devoted to farm worker labour rights.
But the larger question of why farm workers come to Canada – some for decades – is an important one for migrant justice organizers like Justicia for Migrant Workers.
Poverty and exploitation
“Often migrant workers coming here are from impoverished countries from the Global South – from Asia and Latin America,” Paz said. “There’s a connection with neoliberal policies – with global economics. We need to look at why they’re here.
“Many talk about Mexico and Guatemala – the political and economic conditions are getting worse and worse following the implementation of theNorth American Free Trade Agreement. Canada and the U.S. are responsible for the destruction of local economies in theres countries. And people have been displaced from their local communities by the presence of Canadian mining companies.”
The widespread displacement of rural populations – particularly in the agricultural sector – in Mexico, for instance, has driven many migrants to the cities, and to a “dramatic exodus.” That stems from free trade policies that put Mexican farmers out of work, under competition from Canadian and U.S. agribusiness, Paz said.
“It’s not like we’re opposed to bringing migrant workers,” Paz said. “But instead of bringing them on a temporary basis, we are advocating that these people get citizenship rights.
“They come season after season. I know farm workers who have been coming for 25 years. They are what we call in a ‘permanent impermanence.’ They are permanent forever.”