Poor working conditions 'Canada's shameful secret'
Laura Redpath, Gleaner Writer
THE AGRICULTURE Workers Alliance in Canada has described the treatment of Jamaican migrant farm workers as "Canada's shameful secret" and "indentured servitude".
Stan Raper, national coordinator of the alliance, spoke with The Gleaner on Tuesday, describing the relationship between many farm workers as a power imbalance.
"Farm workers have little ability to complain and deal with issues affecting them," he said.
The Canadian Medical Association Journal published two peer-reviewed articles last week, which show that a number of Jamaicans and other migrant workers, including Mexicans, experience harsh living and working conditions, resulting in chronic ailments, some of which are gastrointestinal in nature, or linked to long-term chemical exposure.
"Our own Government has ignored this issue. We have testimonials from people, and we have made recommendations to the federal government to no avail," Raper noted.
The Agriculture Workers Alliance operates under the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which is dedicated to workers' rights. According to the UFCW website, the union is Canada's largest private-sector union, with more than 250,000 members.
"We educate (workers) about their rights, as a lot of workers don't understand. In cases where literacy is an issue, we help them in reading formal government documents. They need them in a format that's digestible to them," Raper said.
The Canadian Medical Association Journal studies are not the first to have been carried out on the conditions experienced by migrant farm workers.
According to Raper, for the past nine years, the alliance has been releasing its own studies each year.
"Much of what was in the recently released ones, we have covered already," he said.
The alliance's national coordinator said, in order to carry out their own research, they rely on case studies that come into their organisation, especially where workers' compensation, health and safety, and liaison are concerned.
Jenna Hennebry, one of the researchers who worked on last week's published studies, said 600 migrant workers were sampled and approximately 100 of them were Jamaican.
She told The Gleaner last week that while farmers experience musculoskeletal injuries, among other conditions, or suffer from climatic extremes, many of them were afraid to tell their employers for fear of repatriation.
However, Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, described the studies as "wild ramblings".
"Universities in Canada don't write one good thing, not one good thing," he asserted in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
Forth said he did not think the studies warranted an inquiry.
"I don't care what you read. Why would we?" he said, noting that the checks and balances were in place for the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Programme, which was implemented in 1966.
He said Canada's health department inspects the farms once a year before the farm workers arrive, saying officials usually want the farms inspected before they are allowed to live there.
In spite of disagreeing with the studies, Forth acknowledged the possibility existed that migrant workers are experiencing less than favourable conditions while temporarily employed.