University of Windsor professor describes SAWP as ‘racial apartheid ‘


By Lincoln DePradine 

Chris Ramsroop and Vasanthi Venkatesh

A program which offers short-term employment in Canada for workers from the Caribbean and other places, is a “nasty system’’, according to Jessica Ponting of Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW).

Ponting made the comments while participating in an online discussion titled, “Understanding The Farmworker Program’’.

The webinar, in which calls were made for changes in the Farmworker Program, was organized by the Department of Behavioural Sciences of the University of the West Indies (UWI), in collaboration with J4MW – a Toronto-based migrant workers’ advocacy group.

For more than 50 years, foreign nationals – including many from Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and Antigua and other member countries of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States – have been employed in Canada annually.

Vasanthi Venkatesh

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) allows employers to hire temporary foreign workers, such as those from the Caribbean when local farm hands are not available.

The SAWP operates according to bilateral agreements between Canada and the participating countries.

In a 2017 report, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) – an agency of the Organization of American States – said SAWP participants can earn up to five times more than they could in their own countries.

 “The research study on SAWP shows favorable benefits and inherent opportunities for supporting agricultural development in Latin American and Caribbean countries,” Audia Barnett, an IICA representative in Canada, said following the publishing of the report.

However, Ponting and other panelists, were scathing in their criticism of SAWP.

“The system is supposed to protect the workers but it doesn’t,’’ said Ponting, who is a community legal worker with the legal clinic known as IAVGO – the Industrial Accident Victims’ Group of Ontario.

It’s a “pretty nasty system’’ that’s “designed to have a compliant workforce’’, Ponting added.

Fellow panelists Adrian Smith, Vasanthi Venkatesh and Evelyn Encalada Grez – all J4MU members – as well as webinar chairperson Dr Talia Esnard of UWI and moderators Moilene Samuels and Chris Ramsaroop of Toronto – outlined problems confronting the migrant workers.

farm workers

The problems, they said, include exposure to diseases such as COVID-19; injury on the job; eating “unhealthy food’’; and “inadequate’’ living conditions.

“There are serious problems with the program’’, including “system inequalities’’ that are “deeply imbedded’’ in the SAWP, said Esnard. “They still remain a disposable group of workers.’’

In the last few months, as many as seven SAWP workers have died in Canada, said Ramsaroop, a J4MW member and University of Toronto student. “We want to just take some time to think about that,’’ he remarked.

Ramsaroop said thousands of SAWP participants also have tested positive for COVID-19 and “many outbreaks’’ among the group “are not being reported’’.

Ponting, for her part, described agriculture work as a “very dangerous’’ industrial sector. “Agriculture is one of the most dangerous jobs in Canada, in terms of fatality,’’ she said.

Smith, a J4MW member and a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, said “racism is an indispensable feature’’ of the temporary farm labour program, which facilitates “the ability of the employers to continue to accumulate capital; to continue to run their businesses and industries, without due consideration of these workers, their families and their communities’’. 

Venkatesh, an assistant professor in the faculty of law at the University of Windsor, referred to the SAWP as “racial apartheid’’.

Grez, a researcher and Simon Fraser University employee, said she’s in touch with many SAWP workers, including women, and has been following their “lived experiences” for 20 years.

She has documented instances of discrimination, including water taps and sinks with labels that direct Jamaicans to use one set and Mexicans to use another.

“Now, we’re seeing the children of migrant workers inheriting the work of their parents; they are modeling their lives around these migration programs because of a lack of options for survival back in their home communities in Mexico and parts of the Caribbean,’’ said Grez.

The situation of the migrant workers is “very upsetting’’, said Samuels, a J4MW member and Ryerson University student. “This has been going on for 55 years now and we think enough is enough. It’s time that the world knows about what happens to migrant farm workers when they arrive in Canada.’’

Among the short-term goals of J4MW and other activists, said Samuels, are supporting injured migrant workers; bringing “awareness to the Caribbean communities regarding the perils and plight of migrant farmworkers’’; and shedding light on “how workers and advocates are fighting back at every level, using a multi-prong approach’’.

However, Samuels said there is are long-term goals that are to effect a “revision of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program; and influence policymakers in the Caribbean to put pressure on Canada and change the bilateral agreement’’.