When did we lose the will to care?

By Michael Lashley

Do we care enough about the well-being of the foreign seasonal farmworkers who come to Canada every year to contribute to the sustainability of Canada’s agricultural industry and to ensure that those of us who live here and many who live abroad can enjoy the benefits of Canadian foods and drink?

I ask because I am constantly reminded of the fact that we as a society have been losing the will to care about the well-being of others. One such reminder came to me from an article written by a journalist last week after the publication of the Summary Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Our complacent disregard for the rights and needs of our Aboriginal peoples is now sadly legendary.

This use of the term “complacent disregard” is intentional, and therefore is meant to exclude those politicians and private individuals whose attitude to Aboriginals, foreign workers, cultures / religions / ethnic groups different from their own, the poor and the marginalized may be described by some activists as “criminal disregard”.

I will not use such language here but there are several reasons why I have delayed and hesitated in the past, why I have not yet addressed the issues related to foreign seasonal farmworkers. I still feel that I need to research the issues more deeply, taking into consideration the views and interests of all the parties involved.

I would like to avoid being inflammatory and over-dramatic, seeking rather to promote peaceful and consensual solutions. And I am ever conscious of the possibility of ethical and other considerations arising from my professional relationship in the past with the Commonwealth Caribbean / Mexico Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, the official program under which foreign seasonal farmworkers are brought to Canada every year.

However, even without having completed the research and the identification of policy solutions, I have decided that at the very least I should take the time as of now to ask the relevant questions. It is important to bear in mind that the umbrella agreements that set up and operate the foreign farmworkers program directly and indirectly are signed by the Canadian federal government; the governments of the sending countries in the Commonwealth Caribbean (Barbados, the Eastern Caribbean countries, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago) and Mexico; the Canadian employer; and the individual worker.

Having made those clarifications, I now list, without prejudice, some of the major questions relating to the well-being of the foreign seasonal farmworkers.

Is there an economic justification for the employment of foreign seasonal farmworkers? What are the alternative policy options? Is the current system in the long-term interest of Canada, the Canadian agricultural employers and the seasonal farmworkers themselves?

Are the terms and conditions for these farmworkers fair, adequate and consistent with official Canadian and international labor policies, practices and standards? The issues here include wages, health and medical care and benefits; grievance procedures; safe and quality-regulated transport to and from work; quality-regulated housing; social life and social integration into the farming communities; and, especially, the introduction of the option for workers to change their employer during the period of their employment.

Should the federal government make special provisions for foreign seasonal farmworkers to apply for and qualify for permanent residence in Canada?

Why have the sending countries’ governments and the government of Canada not taken a pro-active role in addressing all those issues? Why have the provincial governments not taken up their own responsibilities in those issues?

I venture to proffer one answer to these last two questions: The interests of foreign seasonal farmworkers have not so far figured among the issues that have an impact on the provincial and federal elections.

Let those foreign workers, the members of their respective diaspora communities who already have the right to vote and their respective community organizations have ears to hear.

For my part, I have been as non-confrontational and non-accusatory as I possibly can.

Michael Lashley
Michael Lashley