Permanent residence for seasonal agricultural workers


A new Report, prepared by the well intentioned and highly respected Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), has painted a far too rosy picture of the experiences of seasonal farm workers in Canada.

Almost exactly one year ago, The Caribbean Camera issued an Editorial which included a strong appeal for seasonal farm workers from the Caribbean and Mexico to be granted a path towards acquiring permanent resident status in Canada.

That Editorial outlined some of the many ways in which Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) could and should be strengthened and improved for the benefit of both the Canadian agriculture industry and the farm workers. The Editorial spoke to the issues in the following terms:

“However, the most important feature of the SAWP upgrade has to be the creation of an appropriate path to permanent residence (PR) for long-serving seasonal farm workers. This is fundamentally a human rights issue: Why are SAWP workers deprived of a path to PR? Clearly, this is a case of injustice and inequity vis-à-vis other categories of “temporary” workers.

“It is unacceptable that SAWP workers should labour in Canada for about six months per year, for five, ten, fifteen or even twenty years, without being eligible to apply for PR.

“Surely, persons who work, pay taxes and fit into the society for such extended periods should be given equitable consideration by an immigration system that spends millions of dollars per year on recruiting permanent residents from outside of Canada.”

That policy position is one of the main aspects of the battle being fought on behalf of the workers by the activist group Justicia for Migrant Workers. Spokesmen for the group reacted to the IICA Report by highlighting various unjust practices that negatively affect the workers, locking them in a “vicious cycle”.

One of the solutions the spokesmen recommended to address such undesirable practices is based on the principle of eliminating the vulnerability of the workers. One of them summarized his advocacy for permanent residence as a measure meant to correct an unfair imbalance, in the following argument:

“To break this vicious cycle, migrant workers should be accorded permanent residency on arrival in Canada to level the playing field between migrant workers and their bosses.”

Given the critical importance of a reliable labour force for Canada’s agriculture industry and by extension its food processing industry, one wonders why the federal government does not move to secure this tried and proven labour supply.

Why would a Liberal government continue to expose itself to accusations of exploiting the vulnerability of the farm workers?

Do the very modest socio-economic conditions in their respective home countries make the SAWP so attractive an option for the farm workers that they accept whatever unsavoury treatment the Canadian farm owners mete out to them?

Is the federal government afraid of setting a precedent that other Canadian economic sectors might want to use to their own advantage in a manner that runs contrary to the national interest?

One of the responsibilities of a government is to make decisions in complex situations. It is not always easy to balance out the competing interests of all the parties, but difficult decisions cannot be simply left hanging for decades on end.

It is more than time that a path to permanent resident status for seasonal agricultural workers should be created.

The newly appointed Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Ahmed Hussen has his work cut out for him on this file.

Political will and a sense of priority will be decisive factors. This is also a golden opportunity to enhance Canada’s international image as a nation built on equity and justice.

Is the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau up to the task?