Farm workers in southwestern Ontario may unknowingly be participating in illegal cannabis operations that are requiring significant police resources to shut them down, according to provincial police.
In the last three years, nine large-scale police operations in Leamington have targeted the illegal production of cannabis, with about $10 million in illicit drugs seized in the process, OPP said.
"While millions of dollars of illegally grown cannabis has been seized within the town of Leamington, we see the strengthening, unfortunately, of organized crime entities throughout the area," Insp. Glenn Miller said during a presentation given to Leamington council Tuesday.
"The trend we are seeing is that processed cannabis is used as a currency in exchange for the hard illicit drugs that we're finding during the execution of several search warrants throughout the town of Leamington."
Miller told council that partnerships with the town have helped police close large cannabis production sites. Bylaw officers often identify suspicious sites to police, and neighbourhood complaints help in those efforts.
However, Miller said, policing the issue is a challenge in the agricultural hub, which is home to some of Ontario's largest legitimate greenhouse operations.
"These investigations and the hierarchy which they operate require significant police resources and resources of the town as well to assist us," he said.
"Unfortunately, many farm labourers who arrive in Leamington under the pretext of working within a legitimate farm operation are often utilized to assist those criminal networks unknowingly to them that they are participating in an illegal operation."
Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald said employment trafficking is an ongoing concern for her community, and officials have been aware of how farm workers — many coming to Canada under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program — have fallen victim to illegal work.
WATCH | Mayor says it's heart-wrenching to see farm workers caught up in dangerous work:
"We try to be aware and diligent to help folks ... but sometimes fear keeps them underground — and that's what it is, an underground network of employment trafficking, and it does tend to come from other countries," MacDonald told CBC News after the council meeting.
Advocates have long said that because temporary foreign workers are typically issued Canadian work permits tied to one employer, they fear losing their ability to work here if they speak up.
"They came with good intentions, but often times have gone through a broker, and that's not necessarily a legal broker, and when they get here, sometimes passports are taken away," said MacDonald.
When [the federal government] legitimized marijuana, they assumed everyone would go the licensed route, and they just didn't ... and it's been lucrative for people, - Hilda MacDonald, mayor of Leamington, Ont.
"There's no avenues to find help because they don't speak the language, they don't have easy access back home, so they are caught in a world where they are labour trafficked — I don't know how else to say it."
Leamington and neighbouring agricultural communities like Kingsville have partnered with foreign consulates and local organizations to provide more assistance to workers coming to the region from outside of Canada.
At the root of illegal employment are the operations themselves, which tend to be started by out-of-towners, notably from the Greater Toronto Area, said MacDonald.
Call for better federal government oversight
Since there are so many available greenhouses in her community, MacDonald said it's all too easy for illegal grow operations to set up in Leamington — a problem she said Ottawa needs to address.
"When [the federal government] legitimized marijuana, they assumed everyone would go the licensed route, and they just didn't ... and it's been lucrative for people" said MacDonald.
The mayor said many people look for better prices and higher potency, something the illicit market has been able to offer.
She wants to see tighter regulations from the federal government, including more oversight on doctor prescriptions for cannabis and more powers to municipalities to control the issue.
"We need to see stricter guidelines all around," said MacDonald.
Advocates for migrant farm workers say the federal government also needs to reassess it's migrant program so workers can choose another employer if they're involved in illegal activity or facing other kinds of issues.
"This goes once again back to the federal government and how are they going to address workers who are precarious because of either their undocumented status or because of a tied work permit," said Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer for advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers.
"It can be a cannabis operation or it could be a worker being employed at a workplace that they are not authorized to."
Ramsaroop said open work permits would allow for farm workers to move freely if they are being intimidated by employers or facing other issues like wage theft.