'When...your boss is abusing you, you can't just leave': Jamaican migrant workers expose Canada's ‘systemic slavery’

An open letter written by Jamaican migrant workers working in Ontario is highlighting the unfair and dangerous working and living conditions they face on a daily basis, as well as the inequality of certain work permits.

The letter was addressed to Karl Samuda, Jamaica’s minister of labour and social security, who last week visited farms where Jamaican workers were employed through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). The letter likens treatment of migrant workers to 'systemic slavery', detailing the cramped conditions they live in, which are monitored by cameras, as well as lack of facilities like a drying machine, which forces them to wear wet clothing to work.

We are living in a First World country but at both these farms rats are eating our food. We do not have clothes dryers so when it rains we are forced to wear cold, wet clothing to work. We live in crowded rooms and have zero privacy. There are cameras around the houses so it feels like we are in prison.Excerpt of migrant workers' letter e-mailed to the Jamaica Observer

When it comes to working conditions, they describe being verbally abused by their bosses, being treated like mules who are punished for not working fast enough, as well as being exposed to pesticides without the proper protection.

NEW HAMBURG, ON- AUGUST 28: Migrant workers from Jamaica prepare to sort beets. Pfenning's Organic Farms in New Hamburg, Ontario, employs Canadians and Jamaican migrant farm workers to work its fields and packing warehouse. The owners would like to see its Jamaican workers afforded better pathways to becoming permanent residents and have open work permits that give workers the ability to easily change employers.  Jim Rankin/Toronto Star        (Jim Rankin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
NEW HAMBURG, ON- AUGUST 28: Migrant workers from Jamaica prepare to sort beets. Pfenning's Organic Farms in New Hamburg, Ontario, employs Canadians and Jamaican migrant farm workers to work its fields and packing warehouse. The owners would like to see its Jamaican workers afforded better pathways to becoming permanent residents and have open work permits that give workers the ability to easily change employers. Jim Rankin/Toronto Star (Jim Rankin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

'Basically impossible to assert any rights'

Syed Hussan is the Executive Director of the ​​Migrant Workers Alliance, a group that supports the self-organization of migrant workers. He says the fact that the minister’s visit still went as planned, despite the open letter, makes it seem that both the Jamaican and Canadian governments see migrant workers as machines and commodities, not human beings.

Each year about 70,000 to 80,000 people come to Canada to work in “agri-food” jobs, which includes positions like farm workers, fisheries workers, mushroom pickers and chicken catchers.

They come on either a seasonal permit, which lasts for a maximum of eight months, or on one or two-year permits.

All these workers are tied to their employers, which means they’re prohibited from working for anyone else.

When you work and your boss is mistreating you, abusing you or exploiting you, you can’t just leave.Syed Hussan, Executive Director of the ​​Migrant Workers Alliance

What complicates matters even more is that migrant workers live in housing that is provided and controlled by their employer. So if they speak up and are forced to lose their job, they often become homeless.

Employers also have the ability to send workers back to their home country or blacklist them, making them ineligible to work in Canada in the future.

“It’s basically impossible to assert any rights,” says Hussan. “Even where people have basic rights, they’re unable to assert them.”

Most labour laws across the country exclude migrant workers. So basic laws like minimum wage, overtime pay, breaks during work, weekends, public holidays exclude migrant workers in most provinces. They’re also not allowed to unionize.

SAWP was first established in 1966, and was considered to be one of the first temporary immigration schemes in the world. It was mainly for workers from the Caribbean and then Mexico but has since expanded to include many other countries, like the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia.

In 2000, about 60,000 work permits were issued in Canada in total. In 2021, that number was closer to 600,000.

Hussan says that number includes a high percentage of foreign students on study permits, who generally also work in low wage jobs. At the end of their permit, if they can’t find jobs, they have to leave the country.

Hussan says when people are here on temporary work visas, they can’t access health care, education or labour rights amongst many other obstacles. The result of that has led to a massive number of undocumented people.

“We’re seeing massive increases in temporariness, massive increases in exploitation, and a connected increase to people becoming undocumented,” he says.

The most significant and important demand from migrant workers, Hussan adds, is the opportunity to receive permanent residency. He says the mistreatment and exploitation of foreign workers will continue as long as we have a system of temporary migration and people are becoming undocumented as a result. He says it's an issue every Canadian who eats food picked by these workers should care about.

Without permanent residency status, you don’t have the same rights as other citizens. A fair society is one with equal rights and equal rights are only possible if everyone has permanent immigration status.Syed Hussan, Executive Director of the ​​Migrant Workers Alliance