Fri | Jun 2, 2023

Farm workers give employers passing grade

Majority say they were being treated well; concerns linger about effectiveness of liaison officers

Published:Friday | April 21, 2023 | 12:28 AMKimone Francis/Senior Staff Reporter
Helene Davis Whyte.
Helene Davis Whyte.

Trade unionist Helene Davis White, who headed a fact-finding team appointed by the Government to investigate the working conditions of Jamaican farm workers in Canada, has shed more light on the findings of the probe, which failed to unearth evidence of “systemic slavery”.

The team polled some 450 workers both in Canada and Jamaica as part of its investigation.

A random sample selection was used in selecting 10 per cent of Canadian farms where Jamaicans were employed.

In a Gleaner interview on Tuesday, Davis Whyte said that a standard survey was used to collect data on the working conditions. Workers injured on the job were also interviewed to assess the level of care and responsiveness to their needs by the Jamaica liaison service in Canada and the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.

“For us, in our minds, what systematic slavery conjured up, we didn’t see being reflected in conditions on the farm. There are farms where conditions needed to be improved and relations between the owners and managers needed also to be improved based on reports that we had gotten and that would have come out in the statistics, but we didn’t find that it was an overwhelming number of situations,” Davis Whyte said.

“Nonetheless, we felt that there was one situation that we deemed not to be acceptable labour management working relationship and acceptable working conditions. We felt that those needed to be addressed,” she added, noting that recommendations were made to address this.

Davis Whyte said that questions largely centred on the terms and conditions of employment, which included the numbers of hours worked per week and the duration of contracts.

There were also questions which focused on labour management relationships and how owners or managers related to employees.

Davis Whyte said that persons were surveyed away from employers to assure them that there would be no victimisation and to glean honest responses.

“Just by doing that, we think that the results that we got were valid in terms of persons not being under any kind of pressure to give their views,” she said.

Most respondents indicated that they worked on average 10 hours per day over a 40-hour workweek, Davis Whyte said. Seventy per cent indicated that their contracts ranged from five months to eight months.

Davis Whyte said that 72 per cent of respondents indicated that the treatment from their employers were either ‘good’ or ‘very good’. She noted that when those who indicated that the treatment was ‘fair’ is added, the figure climbed to 90.1 per cent.

She said that 87.1 per cent of the respondents indicated that they were treated with respect by owners and managers.

In terms of living accommodations, more than 70 per cent of those surveyed provided positive reviews, with 30.4 per cent indicating that this was “excellent”.

Still, there were concerns with the service of Jamaican liaison officers. Some 55 per cent of respondents said that they were satisfied with the service which means that just under half were not comfortable.

Davis Whyte said that the team found that there were only 13 liaison officers for the programme despite farms being far apart.

Approximately 10,000 Jamaicans are part of the seasonal programme, which began in 1966, and are spread across 655 farms in 10 provinces.

About 80 per cent are returning workers.

Davis Whyte said the team found that in many instances liaison officers visited farms when workers were away in the field. She said because they are paid by the hour, they are not keen on leaving to speak with officers.

Meanwhile, the fact-finding chairman said that it was found that there were privacy issues at larger farms in terms of bathroom facilities.

She said there were also concerns and questions from the team about the number of bathrooms and toilets available to workers and whether they were acceptable.

However, she said that employers indicated that they were working with numbers prescribed by Canadian authorities which were deemed acceptable.

Davis Whyte said that there were also concerns about the number of appliances made available to workers as some workers had to get up from 2 a.m. to ensure that they can wash their clothes.

Some Jamaicans had complained that while living and working in a developed country, their living conditions were such that rats were eating their food.

They also said that there were no clothes dryers and so they were subjected to wearing cold clothes whenever it rained.

They complained of living in crowded rooms, that they had no privacy, and that cameras were placed around their living quarters, causing them to feel as though they were living in prisons.