Jamaica’s labour minister responds to workers’ claims of abuse at Canadian farms

·4 min read

Jamaica’s minister of labour and social security is refuting migrant workers’ claims that Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) is akin to “systemic slavery.”

Earlier this month, Jamaican farm workers in Ontario sent a letter to Minister Karl Samuda detailing abysmal living and working conditions on two farms he was set to tour days later. The letter urged Jamaica to lobby Canada to grant seasonal workers permanent resident status to address the precarity of being tied to an employer who can fire and deport workers at any time.

Nearly two weeks after visiting the farms, Samuda’s office released a statement responding to the letter that painted a different picture.

“While the conditions varied from farm to farm, the housing conditions ranged from good to excellent,” Samuda said. “We observed no evidence of mistreatment.”

He added that “it is not appropriate for the government of a democratic country to lobby another to grant its people permanent residency.”

An average of 10,000 Jamaicans participate in SAWP each year, a majority of whom are returning workers, said Samuda. He called the program “essential” to thousands of Jamaican families, rural communities and the entire country.

“I cannot see persons enthusiastically participating in a [program] for 35 years under the conditions which are now being asserted,” his statement reads.

The conditions he refers to were described in the farm workers’ letter as crowded and surveilled living quarters, insufficient food, physical intimidation and verbal threats from bosses, punishments for “not working fast enough” and exposure to dangerous pesticides.

It is important to protect the rights of farm workers and safeguard the program, said Samuda.

The anonymous workers who wrote to Samuda with their grievances say they feel “betrayed” by his response, according to a press release from Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. They said their bosses threatened to shut down the farm after their appeal to the minister garnered media attention.

The Jamaican government employs liaison officers based in Canada to safeguard the interests of workers and address any challenges they experience, Samuda’s statement noted. The liaison service collaborates with Canadian authorities to investigate reports of mistreatment and relocate workers if needed, it added.

In their letter to Samuda, Jamaican workers said liaison officers do not respond to their calls for help, or worse, side with the bosses and make it difficult for them to be rehired next season.

The minister’s message is clear: migrant workers can’t look to the authorities for help; they must protect themselves, the workers’ statement said.

Foreign workers have the same rights to workplace protections as Canadians and permanent residents under applicable federal, provincial and territorial employment standards and collective agreements, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) communications officer Jeffrey MacDonald told Canada’s National Observer in an emailed statement. Along with reporting mistreatment to provincial and territorial labour authorities — which establish labour and workplace safety standards for all workers — tips can be reported to Service Canada.

As of June 2019, foreign workers with an employer-specific work permit can apply for an open work permit if they are being mistreated by their current employer, which allows them to find work on another farm, MacDonald said.

When this happens, the worker’s former place of work is inspected and employers found breaking program rules can be fined or banned from hiring foreign workers.

“Tens of thousands of temporary workers transition to permanent status each year,” the IRCC statement said, noting: “Of the 406,000 foreign nationals who became permanent residents in 2021, nearly 169,000 of them transitioned from worker status.”

The department said it will continue to explore methods to improve the process of transitioning foreign nationals from temporary status to permanent residency.

Despite Samuda’s response, migrant workers will continue to organize and push for permanent residency “to combat these abusive bosses so they have less power to threaten us and our families,” the authors of the letter said.

“The agri-food industry in Canada exported C$82.2 billion worth of goods, which is four times the GDP of Jamaica,” Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said in a press release. “It is no surprise that the Jamaican government has turned to exporting people for the sake of remittances, and takes the side of exploitative bosses instead of workers.”

Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer