Time to fix the farm workers programme

Now more than 50 years old, the Canada-Caribbean Seasonal Agricultural Workers Programme (SWAP)  has some long-standing problems which deserve immediate attention from the powers that be.

SWAP has often being described as a win-win program – a win for the farmers who need to get their crops harvested and a win for the foreign workers who are employed for several months of the year. But is it really a win-win  program?

Many problems affecting  migrant workers over the years have never received the full attention which they deserved from either the Canadian government nor  Caribbean governments participating in the programme.

And now during the current COVID-19 pandemic, understandably there are growing concerns about the safety of the workers.

Just recently, at a farm in  Ontario where migrant workers mostly from Jamaica, Mexico and Guatemala are hired, more than 40 of them  tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

And we have also recently learned that Jamaican farm workers on the program were required to sign liability waivers that absolved  the government of Jamaica of any responsibiliity if they (the workers) contracted the coronavirus while working in Canada.

There have been no official denials from the Jamaican government about these waivers.

But according to Justicia for Migrant Workers, an activist group that advocates for the rights of workers, criticisms of the waivers of the farm workers in general were dismissed as “irresponsible and alarmist rhetoric of  troublemakers.”

But it remains a matter of deep concern and the  group has called for ” immediate action”  from the Ontario government ” to protect agricultural workers employed in the province.”

In a letter to Premier Doug Ford,  it has urged the government to ” suspend any agricultural workplace from operating until the workplace is fully sanitized and the workers are provided with full Personal Protective Equipment while at work.”

And it calls for the workers to be paid their full wages during the sanitization process.

The letter also raised several issues which certainly  demand immediate attention such as providing an expedited appeals process for migrant workers when filing complaints wth respect to occupational health and safety and employment standards,extending occupational health and safety legislation to include agricultural dwellings and strengthening anti-reprisal protections to ensure workers are not fired for raising health and safety concerns or if they become sick or injured at work.

We hope that Caribbean governments which participate in the Canadian-Caribbean farm workers program are paying attention.

Of course, there are many other concerns which need to  be raised not just at  the provincial level but with the Canadian federal government.

Why are work permits for  the migrant workers tied to a specific employer?

Why are there no pathways to permanent residency and citizenship for those who keep returning to Canada year after year to work on  the programme?

These are among the  questions which should certainly be discussed at an  early Canada-Caribbean heads of government meeting and Caribbean governments should themselves get together to work out a unified position on these issues.

At a recent online discussion on ” the seasonal farm workers in Canada” hosted by the Canada-Caribbean Institute at Brock University , Dr. Claudette Crawford- Brown,a lecturer in Clinical Social Work at the University of the West Indies  correctly noted that a strong presence by the State defending farm workers and strong advocacy groups are key to ensuring their safety.

We hope that  Caribbean governments are made aware of this.It is high time that the government-to-government farm workers program should be fixed.