OPSEU Coalition of Racialized Workers

International Day for the Elimination of Racism and Racial Discrimination


March 21: 50 years of anti-racism

Established in 1966 by the United Nations, the International Day for the Elimination of Racism and Racial Discrimination commemorates the Sharpeville massacre that took place on March 21, 1960.  On that day, South African police shot and killed 69 peaceful demonstrators who had been protesting that country's system of racial segregation, known as apartheid.

The 1966 UN proclamation called on the world community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. The resolution also recognized that racism and systems of apartheid are “denials of basic human rights” and constitute “serious barriers to economic and social development.”

This year, the United Nations marks the International Day by recognizing the challenges and achievements of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Adopted at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in South Africa, the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action is a comprehensive framework for combatting racism and racial discrimination in all its forms.  It includes specific recommendations for fighting discrimination against persons of African descent, indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and other groups; it commits the international community to the principles of equal rights and self-determination.

In a recent news statement, United Nations human rights experts expressed deep concern about increased incidents of hate and xenophobia. The experts stated that "Fifteen years after the Durban Conference very little progress has been made in tackling racism, afrophobia, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

In Canada, racism and its impacts take many forms and many racialized individuals and communities continue to be subject to racism, social injustice, and inequality on a daily basis. The OPSEU Workers of Colour Caucus calls attention to three critical areas for action on racism and racial discrimination:

  • racial profiling and racist police violence;
  • ending discriminatory legislation like Bill C-24 (Strengthening the Canadian Citizenship Act) and the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act, Bill C-51; and
  • combatting  forms of economic disparity and precarious work, like the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program that disproportionately impacts racialized workers

For more information about the WoCC's 2016 strategic areas of focus.

The International Day for the Elimination of Racism and Racial Discrimination is a call to action. It is a reminder of our collective responsibility for promoting and protecting the goals of elimination of forms of discrimination and racial oppression that harm the rights of all workers to organize and fight for equitable workplaces, unions and communities.

Remember the migrant workers who feed us

A Letter from the Chair of the Workers of Colour Caucus (WoCC)

Every year on March 21, Canadians commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Racism and Racial Discrimination. People may wonder about the need for a day in which the need to end racism is recognized. Yet, every single day, we are all confronted with news stories about war, hunger, and poverty.    "Race" and racial discrimination are at the centre of far too many of these stories.

Canada and the United States have had a long history of racist colonialism in their dealings with racialized and Aboriginal communities.

As a very real contemporary example, politicians like Donald Trump have based their entire campaigns on inflammatory racial rhetoric.  Trump says one group of people—largely immigrant and racialized communities– are responsible for the downturn in the well-being and success of other Americans.   Yet, the speople he blames for a failing economy are the same vulnerable, racialized workers who today, we are happy to exploit in order to harvest our fruit and vegetables.

On this March 21, the Workers of Colour Caucus wishes to mark the 50th anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers program in Canada.  

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (“SAWP”) is a guest worker program that attempts to respond to the labour shortage in the Canadian agricultural sector.

Jamaican workers started to migrate to Canada in 1966 under the SAWP.  The program now involves approximately 18,000 to 20,000 migrant workers who arrive in Canada annually from the Caribbean and Mexico to work in tobacco fields, canning/processing plants, greenhouses and nurseries. Workers’ contracts are restricted to three to eight months. Workers are sent home as soon as their contracts expire.  

For 50 years, seasonal agricultural workers have had no pathway to citizenship. They have been treated as disposable labour and subjected to differential exploitation.    Seasonal agricultural workers often perform rigorous and dangerous work, routinely working 12 to 15 hours per day without overtime or holiday pay. They are also often excluded from such basic rights under human rights laws, health and safety legislation and most aspects of the Employment Standards Act.

As a first-generation Canadian from Jamaica, it is with great pain that I write about racialized workers who have been exploited in programs like these for over 50 years.   To me, the SAWP is just another form of slavery; a form of institutionalized slavery in which vulnerable workers are treated as a source of cheap labour.

While the critics may argue that the home governments of agricultural workers have agreed to the SAWP and the Canadian government, in its generosity, has allowed seasonal workers to make a gainful living to support their families back home—this is not an accurate picture. Free-trade agreements and global re-restructuring ordered by international finical institutions like the World Bank have contributed to impoverishing the economies of the global South.  Most of the workers that participate in the SAWP are dispossessed or struggling small farmers. And the home governments of the workers have often been forced to comply with the requirements of neoliberal agreements despite its devastating effects.

Programs like the SAWP reduce working conditions for all workers and demonstrate that racism is embedded in the fabric of Canadian culture and society.

The Workers of Colour Caucus calls on the Trudeau government to bridge to bridge the gap to Citizenship for migrant workers.   We urge OPSEU members to remember that racialized workers are among the lowest-paid, precarious workers in our workplaces and communities. We ask members to think about the thousands of migrant workers who have helped stock supermarkets with the fresh fruit and vegetables we all bring to our homes.

In solidarity,

Peter Thompson, Chair
OPSEU Workers of Colour Caucus

For more information about the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, visit Justicia for Migrant Workers