Wed | Dec 1, 2021

Trafficking alert for farm workers

Published:Sunday | May 17, 2020 | 12:22 AMJovan Johnson - Senior Staff Reporter
Diahann Gordon Harrison, national rapporteur on trafficking in persons.
Diahann Gordon Harrison, national rapporteur on trafficking in persons.

Fresh allegations are confronting the Government that its inaction is exposing Jamaicans participating in decades-old overseas work programmes in the United States and Canada to human trafficking.

A showdown also looms between Jamaica’s Office of the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons and the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, which claims the former did not consult it on a report which paints a negative picture of a programme depended on by thousands of families.

This comes in the context of news of 36 workers in Canada testing positive for COVID-19 and participants in the programme this year being asked to sign documents ‘releasing’ the Government from liability should they become affected by the coronavirus.

The human-trafficking threat facing the approximately 16,000 Jamaicans who go overseas for between six and eight months per year on Government-sponsored programmes with the North American states was flagged as an “emerging challenge” in the April report by Diahann Gordon Harrison, the national rapporteur on trafficking in persons.

“It is imperative that the Government of Jamaica takes effective steps towards eliminating the barriers that contribute to injuries, death and the overall vulnerability of Jamaican farm workers to exploitation and human trafficking,” Harrison wrote in the report which covered April 2018 to March 2020.

Poor quality healthcare and housing, reprisals, language barriers, inability to change employers, poor labour enforcement standards are among the issues allegedly making workers vulnerable to trafficking in the form of labour exploitation.

NO REST DAYS

“When I arrived in the United States, I realised I had to work from Sunday to Sunday. I had no rest days or weekends off. I had to work like a slave,” Delroy (not his real name) said in an interview about his 2017 experience captured in the rapporteur’s report tabled in Parliament last month.

Delroy said he was injured while picking apples, could not work, and later sent back home. Getting compensation has been a challenge and there was no support from the Jamaican Government’s liaison officer in place to address their concerns and look after their welfare.

“He told me that in order for me to receive a lump-sum payment, I have to lose a foot, hand or eye,” Delroy shared, adding that he is now saddled with a US$5,500 medical bill.

Delroy would have been among 115 Jamaican workers across the US and Canada with reported injuries for the period 2015-2018, which saw 11 deaths, according to the report.

Several current workers in the two countries were interviewed by The Sunday Gleaner. Their stories support the findings of Gordon Harrison’s report.

“It’s rough. Rest days, we only get Sundays,” said one of the farmers on the 77-year-old US programme. “We have to work in the rain, no matter how hard it is. We’re not entitled to a sick day. If you have to go to the doctor, you’re on your own.”

“We are in a small house with eight guys. We have one bathroom, one stove. We get 15 minutes for break, and for lunch, 30 minutes,” said another.

Two workers with a combined 40 years on the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Programme, which started in 1966, said while they have had challenges with the long hours and cramped housing conditions, there are things to be grateful for.

“A work we come, so me nah look for certain things. At least me can earn some money. My house come from this,” said one who earns about US$14 per hour for the 10 hours he works per day, almost twice the state’s minimum wage.

Gordon Harrison: More due diligence needed to ensure minimum standards

The threat to Jamaican workers was reinforced in a 2018 report by Polaris Project, a US non-profit which manages that country’s human trafficking hotline.

It ranked Jamaica fifth among the top 10 nationalities identified as victims of human trafficking on the guest worker programme in the US. Sixteen Jamaicans were alleged victims. Because the number is not disaggregated, it’s not clear how many were from Government-sponsored programmes. Mexicans, the bulk of foreign labourers, top the list.

Human trafficking, whether through labour or sexual exploitation, is highly under-reported, and it’s believed some workers don’t complain for fear of losing their jobs, or not being reinvited for another season.

Some of the issues are expected to be dealt with through the Jamaica Liaison Service, but there are only 18 officers – a ratio of 1 to roughly 890 workers – to cover the US and Canada. This state of affairs, Gordon Harrison argues, needs to change.

“I can’t say that much has been done because I’ve not seen any evidence of it. What I can say is that the concerns remain the same,” she told The Sunday Gleaner of recommendations two years ago to, among other things, increase the number of officers.

“We’re not advocating for throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” she added, citing the value of the programme to Jamaican livelihoods. “All we’re asking is that some more due diligence be paid to ensure that certain minimum conditions are in fact in place.”

Colette Roberts Risden, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, is not happy. She claims that Gordon Harrison did not consult the ministry while compiling the report and a letter would be sent to her outlining its concerns.

“It (report) paints a negative picture on a programme that has been in existence for 77 years. The findings are very concerning,” she said.

“The possibility of a worker being trafficked … is almost next to nil,” she argued, pointing to checks and balances such as contract signing before departure, employer certification, inspections and assignment of liaison officers. Trafficking sensitisation is also done with workers ahead of departure.

On the vexed issue of liaison services, Roberts Risden said technology is helping to bridge gaps although “there is always going to be need for more liaison officers”, but that comes with a cost, she insisted.

Three years ago, the auditor general uncovered a series of deficiencies with the Jamaica Liaison Service, which included a lack of strategic planning and focus, limited performance review and monitoring.

Though not giving specifics, the permanent secretary said: “We try as best as possible to implement the various recommendations.”

Intervention of NGOs caused some of the problems, says Chang

Advocacy groups in Canada and the US argue that while more monitoring is necessary, the contracting system favours employers and needs to be tackled first.

“We have expressed that our country (US) needs a deep redesign of the temporary work visa system (for example, H-2A and H-2B visa types), said Andrea Rojas, director of strategic initiatives – labour trafficking at Polaris.

Some of the structural issues relate to healthcare, housing, and an inability to change workers, noted Syed Hussan, coordinator of the Canada-based Migrant Rights Network.

But he is wary of categorising some of the problems as ‘human trafficking’, which, he argued, could set things back for workers because with greater police involvement, redress on labour issues like non-payment of wages becomes limited.

“If it’s dealt with as a trafficking issue, then the police get involved. The police may charge the employer, but in any case, the police have no capacity to get the wages and return it to the worker,” Hussan said.

NGOs are partly responsible for causing some of the problems now the source of their advocacy, asserted Jamaica’s National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang, who has responsibility for human trafficking.

Citing the US, he said because of NGOs’ “intervention”, the programme was restructured, resulting restricted healthcare access since workers had to stop paying deductions to the Government and fund their own care. He also said this intervention resulted in a yearly drop in Jamaican participants from 20,000 to just about 5,000.

Remittances, which account for a big slice of Jamaica’s yearly earnings, is boosted by the contributions of farm workers. The US programmes have brought in over US$300 million over the past five years, according to Government estimates. In 2015 alone, the Canadian programme raked in J$1.5 billion.

The Sunday Gleaner is awaiting requested responses from the governments of Canada and the United States.

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com

Rapporteur Recommendations 2020

1. Advance negotiations towards a pathway for citizenship or permanent residence for Jamaican guest and farm workers.

2. Advance negotiations with host countries towards job and visa portability

3. Employ foreign-trained lawyers to advocate for workers rights in host countries

4. Utilise research to improve farm workers’ outcomes

5. Liaise with governments in host countries to share information about “bad employers”