Canada’s seasonal workers program garners praise despite shortcomings

New low-skilled foreign workers program fails to provide migrant protections, say critics

DRESDEN, Ont. — Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program is touted as a model for migrant worker programming around the world, but it is often panned by the worker advocates and academics who have studied it.

The federal government had intended to drop SAWP when it launched the low-skilled component of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP), says a long-time director with the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, the producer-led agency that administers SAWP in Ontario.

“We told them not to let it go. We wanted the rules that were already in the SAWP,” Ken Forth said.

“We were not happy campers that day. We told them 10 times to leave it alone, and they finally listened.”

Ottawa has also begun listening to complaints about the low-skilled program, which applies to agriculture and other sectors.

Changes introduced over the past couple years include:

  • Dropping the provision that would allow employers to pay five percent less than the prevailing wage rate for low-skilled workers.
  • Placing greater emphasis on finding Canadians to fill jobs.
  • Taking steps to protect migrant workers from abuse.
  • Responding to worker complaints.
  • Disciplining employers who break the rules.

As well, the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, which receives most of its funding from Citizen and Immigration Canada, is developing a guide that will make SAWP and low-skilled workers aware of their rights.

A draft of the document advises workers to contact community agencies or community legal clinics if they have a problem with their employer. There’s also advice on health, workplace safety, work permit renewal, immigration avenues, dealing with police and opening bank accounts.

Forth said he has no problem with the guide, as long it is approved by the appropriate government ministries.

Worker advocate Stan Raper of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union said the federal changes have been a long time coming.

The union provides similar services through its three migrant worker centres in Ontario and at Saint-Rémi, Que,, and Abbotsford, B.C.

“The SAWP does not have the private recruiters who have a history of being abusive,” he said.

“The differences between the two programs are quite extensive.”

Forth said it is vital that these programs give temporary workers the chance to eventually stay in Canada.

“Immigration is what built this country, period,” he said.

“People came here and built a new life for themselves. Now those people are not allowed in anymore.… I think we need all parts of society to build Canada, whether they are labourers, whether they are academics, whether they are doctors or whether they are engineers. We need them all, but we’re not getting them all.”

SAWP and the low-skilled program fall under the TFWP umbrella.

SAWP has been operating since 1966 with agreements in place between Canada and participating countries: Mexico, Jamaica and several Caribbean nations.

Almost 30,000 SAWP workers come to Canada annually, and more than half of them work on Ontario farms. They are allowed to stay in Canada for up to eight months at a time and may return, year after year.

The low-skilled program was introduced in 2002 as a kind of market-driven alternative: protocols and safeguards only came later. The number of temporary foreign workers in Canada has steadily climbed since it was introduced.

Low-skilled workers can work for up to four years in Canada but must then return home and wait for four years before reapplying to the program.

There are more than 200,000 temporary workers positions for all occupations and skill levels, which in 2012 included 17,290 positions for general farm workers, 12,225 for harvesting labourers and 9,045 for greenhouse and nursery workers.

Jenna Hennebry of Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., believes Canada took a step backward when it introduced the low-skilled component.

“The new programs that have been created to facilitate movement into these ‘lower-skilled’ occupations contain far less government-to-government co-operation.

“This policy change has been bemoaned by critics as a sign of the increasing erosion of migrant protections and may be a move even further away from the best practices the Canadian model is celebrated for,” Hennebry and Kerry Preibisch of the University of Guelph wrote in a paper published in the International Migration journal in 2010.

However, Hennebry also remains deeply critical of SAWP.

Her chief concern is that SAWP ties workers to a single employer and allows employers to send the workers home if they’re not pleased. As a result, workers are afraid of to raise concerns about working and living conditions, she said.

“Although cases of repatriation are low, the instances that have occurred and threaten to do so serve as potent reminders to workers of employer expectations and, consequently, as powerful tools of labour control.”

Hennebry and Preibisch have published other reports and studies, including Permanently Temporary? for the Institute for Research on Public Policy in 2012 and a re-port on farm employee working and living conditions in Ontario for the CERIS Ontario Metropolis Centre in 2010.

These articles list SAWP shortcomings such as:

  • Less than optimal access to public health.
  • Lack of an independent appeals process for workers.
  • A poor understanding among workers of their rights.
  • Limited access to Employment Insurance benefits.
  • No access to a pathway to Canadian citizenship.

The CERIS report also includes examples of abysmal working and living conditions for SAWP workers. They were gathered using a worker questionnaire administered by Hennebry and Preibisch, their research assistants and support staff with the UFCW, which has long been critical of SAWP.

Forth said these reports, and other like them, tend to highlight only SAWP problems. Little mention is made of the fact that the program works as intended on most farms and provides substantial benefits for workers, he said.

Neither do the reports account for nature of agriculture in Canada, he added. The hard work and dangers faced by workers are also a reality for many farmers and their families.

Forth said there are many examples of workers who have been able to build homes, send their children to college and university and establish businesses.

“There are people who will slip back into poverty if the people here get their wish to destroy this program,” he said.

Another study, released last Nov-ember by the Local Immigration Partnership (LIP) in the Municipality of Chatham-Kent, is more conciliatory.

Written by Dipti Patel, who has worked internationally and in Canada, the report looks at how SAWP and the low-skilled program have affected Chatham-Kent and how the programs could be improved.

Chatham-Kent is home to a wide array of horticultural crops, including fruit, fresh and processing vegetables and greenhouse production.

There were more than 1,300 TFWP positions in Chatham-Kent in 2011 and 2012, compared to 927 SAWP positions in 2011, 925 in 2013 and 1,037 in 2013.

Farmers often employ both SAWP and agricultural stream TFWP workers.

The Chatham-Kent LIP report said these programs helps create jobs for Canadians because they allow farming businesses to remain viable.

Employers cited in three case studies all said they are unable to find enough Canadians to fill job positions. They also preferred temporary migrant employees because of their work ethic.

The report concluded that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program name is misleading. Many SAWP workers have been coming to Canada for years, often spending more time here than in their home countries.

At the same time, too little has been done to integrate these workers into the communities where they are employed.

“Service agencies and other service providers often struggle to know how to connect with temporary foreign workers and often are not mandated to do so,” the report said.

It said the low-skilled program should be realigned to follow the successful SAWP model.

This would improve access to health services, benefit employers and provide greater worker support both in Canada and their home countries.

Other recommendations include:

  • Increasing services to all temporary agricultural migrant workers, including English as a second language education and translation.
  • Making settlement services through Citizenship and Immigration Canada available to migrant workers.
  • Recognizing the gap between the contribution that migrant workers make through payroll deductions and the services they receive.
  • Providing better co-ordinating services to migrant workers among the various federal and provincial ministries.
  • Mexico
  • Caribbean countries of:
  • Anguilla
  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • Barbados
  • Dominica
  • Grenada
  • Jamaica
  • Montserrat
  • St. Kitts-Nevis
  • St. Lucia
  • St. Vincent and the Grenadines
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Apiary
  • Pedigreed canola seed
  • Sod
  • Tobacco
  • Bovine
  • Dairy
  • Duck
  • Horse
  • Mink
  • Poultry
  • Sheep
  • Swine
  • Fruits, vegetables, including canning/processing if grown on the farm
  • Flowers and nursery-grown trees including Christmas trees (excluding forest tree nurseries), greenhouses/nurseries
  • The operation of agricultural machinery.
  • Boarding, care, breeding, sanitation or other handling of animals, other than fish, for the purpose of obtaining animal products for market, or activities relating to the collection, handling and assessment of those products.
  • The planting, care, harvesting or preparation of crops, trees, sod or other plants for market.
  • Activities of agronomists or agricultural economists.
  • Landscape architecture.
  • The preparation of vegetable fibres for textile use.
  • Activities related to commercial hunting and trapping.
  • Veterinary activities.
  • Activities must qualify as primary agriculture, which is defined as work that is performed within the boundaries of a farm, nursery or greenhouse and involves the following:

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