Improve foreign farm workers’ lives: network

Rights of Canadians | Migrant Workers Solidarity Network wants workers to earn competitive wages and have health coverage

Migrant farm workers are being exploited by a system that makes them scared to complain, says an organization campaigning for changes.

The Migrant Worker Solidarity Network wants foreign workers in Manitoba to have provincial health-care coverage and be able to immigrate permanently to Canada with their families.

“We are not suggesting for a moment that these men shouldn’t come to Canada, but what we’re advocating for is for them to immigrate here, to bring their families here and to be offered the same rights as other Canadians have when they are here,” said Lynne Fernandez, a member of the network and a professor of labour issues at the University of Manitoba.

The network and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives re-leased a report May 15 that called for improvements to foreign farm workers’ lives.

Fernandez said the workers, mainly Mexicans, are vulnerable because of the way the program that allows them to come to Canada is set up.

The workers apply in Mexico and are approved if they can be matched to employers. However, Fernandez said the approval is for only a few months and workers must re-apply if they want to come back for another season.

She said the application tends to be approved only if the worker has been recommended by the employer, which makes them scared to complain about workplace abuses.

As well, workers are officially covered by employment standards regulations and worker’s compensation, but Fernandez said they generally don’t know how to access the programs and employers often don’t want them to use them.

The workers aren’t covered by provincial health care, she added, and aren’t allowed to collect from federal employment insurance, even though they make contributions to the program.

Fernandez said many come back year after year, sometimes for more than a decade, but are never allowed to immigrate to Canada or bring their families with them. Instead ,they live in a permanent cycle of temporary foreign employment to support their families in Mexico.

She acknowledged that Canadian farms and industries are often at a disadvantage to their American competitors because U.S. minimum wages are lower.

As well, some farm industries in the United States hire illegal aliens, which allows them to further lower their costs.

Canadian employers argue that additional costs for hiring foreign workers would weaken their ability to operate in Canada.

However, Fernandez said Canadians need to ensure they aren’t building a society that intensifies the pressure to push down all workers’ wages and make all Canadians weaker and poorer.

“We keep lowering the bar and lowering the bar so people can have access to cheap stuff,” she said.

“Is this the goal, or is the goal to have a world where workers are protected and everybody has enough money to live a decent life and you’re building your economy that way.”

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