Good day and welcome to Waterloo.
Thank you for coming here and for examining this important issue.
I am here today to present some reflections on my doctoral research, examining health, rights, and access to benefit issues among seasonal agricultural workers.
Mine is the kind of research that most Ph.D. students dream about. I was able to spend my summers in the vineyards of Niagara and my winters in Mexico and Jamaica. But before you get carried away with envious images of pina coladas and white sand beaches, alas, what I discovered was not the stuff of vacations and idyllic lives. Quite the contrary.
Following their time in Canada, many foreign workers return home in dire straits. I lived alongside these workers and their families for three years, and I interviewed their advocates, employers, and medical and government officials. Let me quote a worker, who succinctly described the problems associated with working within a society in which you are not a member:
There are some bosses that are good, but there are (others)...that are totally horrible, the well-being of their workers doesn't interest them.... I guess we're like disposable machines to them...they work us hard until we wear out. Then they replace us with others.
Indeed, the treatment of employers varies drastically, from quite good to totally horrible. But the workers are effectively tied to one employer and are not free to change. In many cases, workers are seen as and treated as machines, working long hours under stressful conditions, doing repetitive and precarious tasks. They are not only metaphorically disposable, but actually are so. Migrant workers can be fired and repatriated at any time and can easily be replaced. Thousands are waiting in line and ready to come whenever the previous worker is deemed no longer fit or willing or able to do the work.
Temporary foreign workers' sense of extreme vulnerability and disposability makes their rights very difficult to access, as any demand could compromise their positions in the program.
My brief expands on the difficulties workers face to get medical care and compensation. It explains that many workers can't even access their own health cards. They face a system that does not integrate them into communities or provide adequate information about their rights, and it places far too much emphasis on their employer-employee relationship. For them, rights on paper do not necessarily result in rights in practice.
The abuses in these programs are very well documented.
Today, I'd like to reflect on the human and social dimensions of transnational migration.
Since 1966, this program has brought workers into Canada annually. Many temporary workers have been in Canada for decades, with only four months with their families in-between. What are the repercussions of this?
In Vancouver, Erika Del Carmen Fuchs testified about specific cases of workers who had returned home to Mexico sick and injured. I can assure you that these are not merely anecdotes or stories. In any region that sends workers to Canada, I found many families afflicted in profound ways from their time in Canada. I met widows of workers who had been killed in Canada. The widows were not receiving any support and could barely feed their children. In desperation, some even left their children to work in Canada.
Children of these migrants deal with depression and alcoholism, as they are forced to grow up without parents at home. There are 12-year-olds raising themselves. Marriages are torn apart by these long, repeated absences. When women get pregnant in the program, many miscarry because they work under difficult conditions and are unable to access prenatal care. Others carry their pregnancies to term, only to return home, have their babies, and leave them again the following season.
Workers injured in Canada are unable to return here. Many are unable to work at home either. Others develop serious illnesses in Canada, like cancer and kidney failure. Normally workers in these situations are sent home. Some manage to run away and apply for refugee status before being deported. Going home is a death sentence. As they pay into benefit programs in Canada, they do not have insurance coverage at home for life-sustaining treatments.
Temporary foreign workers contribute to the Canadian economy, and all Canadians, indirectly, are beneficiaries. Growers face unrelenting pressures in the face of globalized competition—so much so that many say they could not survive without these superb workers. The workers, many of whom have become dependent on their Canadian jobs to support their families, do not want to lose the chance to work in Canada.
All of these are important considerations, so I'm not advocating that we simply abolish this program. But there are ways we can make the system work to be more humane and just. My brief offers a number of recommendations, such as an appeal mechanism for firings and repatriations, comprehensive health insurance, and the ability to freely change employers.
The only meaningful remedy for all these shortcomings, however, is ultimately to grant these workers citizenship. Even if not all workers wish to emigrate to Canada, those who do should be given the choice. Those who do not should still have the freedom to change employers and to come and go as necessary, as family needs and emergencies arise, without the fear that they will never be allowed back.
The Canadian immigration system needs to recognize the value of these so-called low-skilled workers, and as Canadians we should never see people merely as economic units. We should also recognize the toll of living in a country where one is never recognized as a citizen and of separating from one's family year after year.
If workers become ill while working here, Canada also has a moral obligation to care for them. They are not just disposable workers, but also parents, siblings, spouses, and friends.
When this program began in the 1960s, fears of black Caribbean men settling in the Canadian rural landscape worried immigration officials, who devised a structure to ensure that such workers would never stay in Canada after the completion of their contracts. Nearly half a century later, this rationale is out of date and does not reflect Canada's values.
What is the rationale now for excluding these hard-working individuals from ever becoming citizens? If these workers are good enough to work here for 40 years and we say we treat them as we do all other Canadians, why can they not ever become Canadians? How many years of work does it take before it is realized that these job shortages are permanent, not temporary, especially in the agricultural industry?
A critical measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members. Let me repeat that: a critical measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members. These workers are among Canada's most vulnerable occupants. They are not even considered members of our society. In an age of international human rights, our treatment of these people in our midst very much reflects on the chasm between the kind of society we purport to be and the kind of society we are.
I truly hope we can work together to bring our actions in line with our principles.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you today. I truly appreciate it, and I look forward to any questions.