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This Labour Day, let’s remember to fight for temporary agricultural workers, too

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Dear friends,

I love ketchup on my hotdog as much as the next person. But I’m left with a bitter taste in my mouth when I think about the conditions faced by the temporary foreign workers who produced the tomatoes that went into it.

These folks, brought in under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), add up to as many as 45,000 workers across Canada each year. They are brought to this country – many of them coming to Ontario – for four to nine months at a time, after which they are sent back home to Mexico or the Caribbean. They do back-breaking work in Canadian farm fields and bring us much of our domestic produce. But despite their crucial role, they aren’t protected by any real laws. They are afforded none of the basic rights many of us here take for granted. They often work six-day weeks and 10-hour days. They are crammed into substandard housing and prevented by law from unionizing (which, goodness forbid, might help them fight for their denied rights). What’s worse, if they are injured on the job, or fall ill, employers can terminate their contracts and send them back to their home country where health care is often not provided at the same level as it is here. Workers have died because of this policy.

Justice for these workers is long overdue. 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, which has brought hundreds of thousands of workers from Mexico and the Caribbean to toil in Canadian fields. It was supposed to be a temporary fix for a labour market need at the time. Well, 50 years isn’t so temporary. It doesn’t matter how many times a worker comes to Canada to work on a field. Workers come for as many as nine months a year, in some cases for 15 years. Despite this, they have never been invited to stay here – let alone even allowed. And they can’t bring their families. We take their labour, and we apparently need it, but we give them nothing in return except dismal wages.

I grew up on a farm with my parents and three brothers. I remember our friends would be down at the lake, going to dances, doing things young people do, and we boys would be working at our family farm, and sometimes those of our neighbours. The work was tough, but we had plenty of laughs together. While my parents didn’t employ temporary foreign workers, some of the neighbours did. We worked alongside these folks. It seems like a lifetime ago. And these workers still aren’t afforded even a modicum of modern labour rights? It’s disgraceful.

It’s time to stand up.

I’m reminded of our brother Cesar Chavez, a Latino farmer worker-turned civil rights activist in the US during the 1960s. He fought hard against the injustices done to farm workers, and successfully organized thousands of workers, eventually winning some improvements in working conditions. Many workers today face the same struggles as those farm workers did in the 60s.

Some of our brothers and sisters are taking action this month. The Harvesting Freedom march, organized by Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW), is an 800km march, starting in Windsor on September 4, going all the way to Ottawa, with stops scheduled across the province. They are calling for permanent immigration status for our foreign farm workers. It’s about time the government stops stalling on fixing this discriminatory system that denies migrant agriculture workers basic labour rights.

We at OPSEU stand with the marchers. This Labour Day, let’s remember all workers, including those who have been called temporary for far too long, and stand up for the ones who have been prevented by government and employers from achieving the rights owed to them.

Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida
First Vice-President/Treasurer, Ontario Public Service Employees Union

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