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Labour + Industry

Invisible in the Fields

Who are BC's guest growers, and what do they need to succeed? First in a Tyee reader-funded series.

Justin Langille 9 Feb

Justin Langille is a Vancouver-based photographer and reporter, who's published with The Tyee, Xtra and Briarpatch. To carry out this series, he received a $5,000 grant from the Tyee Investigative Reporting Fellowships, funded by donations from readers. To learn more about the Tyee Reporting Fellowships, go here.

[Editor's note: On Monday, 10 migrant workers from Peru and Nicaragua employed at an Ontario poultry farm and one Canadian truck driver were killed in a horrific highway collision. The tragic accident once again brings many questions about Canada's guest labourers to the fore: Who are they, and what are their lives like? What protections do we afford them? And what is gained, and lost, during their time in this country?

With its high concentration of the kind of farming that requires hands-on care -- fruit and fresh veggies instead of fields of grain -- British Columbia agriculture relies on such temporary workers. Many are migrant guest workers coming from poorer countries to do the hardest jobs on B.C. farms. Similar seasonal workers in the United States tell tales of near slavery. Are workers here getting the same dirty deal?

Supported by a reader-funded Tyee Fellowship, reporter Justin Langille went out in the fields this past summer to find out. In this series, names and some details are altered to ensure anonymity. With files from Cindy Hugo.]

Before the summer sun rises above the side roads of Delta, brown eyes open. It is exactly 4:50 a.m. No alarm is necessary: Ernesto's internal clock is well trained by the daily routine of a farm labourer's life.

Ernesto is always the first to wake in the small bungalow he shares with eight co-workers. He stretches his 27-year-old, five-foot-eight frame and sits up. Across the bungalow's small living room, now a makeshift bedroom, Alberto and Carmine slumber still. They won't stir until Ernesto has visited the bathroom and made his way to the kitchen.

Every year, these nine married fathers in their mid-20s or 30s (a few reaching middle age) reunite here. From the snowbird-frequented state of Jalisco to the volatile Oaxaca region and in between, they leave communities across Mexico to seize opportunity in this province.

They quit jobs as construction workers and souvenir hawkers to work for a guaranteed wage and a set amount of time on B.C. farms. A few are agricultural workers at home or landowners themselves; farmers with aspirations and land to cultivate, just like their Canadian employers.

Everyone else in the house is awakened without fail by the sound of Ernesto's blender spinning together a banana milkshake. Soon, the rest of the men sleeping in bedrooms down the hall and in the basement will be up and taking turns in the only bathroom. They crowd the kitchen, chatting about the day and the weather, gathering together sandwich lunches made the previous night.

At six, a van pulls up to the door and all but Ernesto pile inside. A five-minute ride delivers the crew to the same few greenhouses where they have spent most of their waking hours since February cultivating tomatoes.

Ernesto is the exception, traveling and working alone. His diligent work ethic over several seasons has earned him an independent position, managing a separate crew harvesting tomatoes. He hops on a dusty black mountain bike, and begins pumping the pedals down the worn dirt driveway just as Delta's commuters begin to emerge from the night on their way to jobs in Vancouver or Richmond.

Cheap and convenient

Every year, thousands of migrant farm workers like Ernesto and his colleagues leave their homes in distant and generally poorer parts of the world to come to work in Okanagan orchards or Fraser Valley farms. They play a pivotal role in British Columbia's food supply and farm business: providing a dependable source of on-demand, economically priced and willing labour to do the heavy lifting.

This isn't entirely new. For decades, newly-landed immigrant men and women, mainly from South Asia, did the "stoop labour" to keep B.C. fields and orchards blooming, with students from Quebec often chipping in to pick fruit during high season.

However, in the early 2000s, just as the increasingly-globalized food economy became more competitive, B.C. farmers found that many of the workers they depended on were retiring or starting their own farms. Quebecers were coming in fewer numbers, and farmers couldn't depend on an untrained local workforce to show up at the end of the driveway each morning. They felt the need for dependable, yet flexible and cost-efficient, solutions.

In response, some farmers turned to long-standing federal programs designed to allow employers who cannot fill jobs with Canadians, to look abroad for labour or skills.

Beginning in 2002, a few farmers took advantage of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) -- the same program that allows employers to hire temporary nannies and construction workers -- to bring in field workers from Guatemala and elsewhere.

More focused relief soon followed. The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), co-managed by Ottawa's human resources and immigration arms, was developed from a pilot program that first brought Jamaicans to Ontario farms in 1966. Later extended to other provinces, SAWP arrived in B.C. in 2004, allowing farmers who couldn't find willing Canadian field labour to hire from Mexico or one of several eligible Caribbean states.

In B.C., 31,800 citizens and permanent residents form the majority of the agricultural workforce. But with 3,540 approved positions for temporary foreign workers, this province quickly became the second highest employer of SAWP workers in 2010, edging past Quebec behind the perennial leader, Ontario.

When Craigslist fails

Here's how it works.

Before seeking help from abroad, employers must first advertise available jobs at home -- in newspaper classifieds or on Craigslist. If they can prove they've had no bites, they may apply to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) for a "labour market opinion" -- essentially a statement that they can't find a Canadian for the job, but in effect a ticket to import the help they need.

If a migrant worker was employed at a B.C. farm last year and went back to Mexico or Guatemala with a good review, they might be asked back by their employer next season, making them a named worker. If they're new, they have to meet minimum requirements, set out by the Mexican Secretariat of Labour and Social Well-Being and the State Employment Service, when they fill out their application.

Canada's "Seasonal Worker" designation is open to men and women aged 22 to 45 with agricultural work experience living in rural areas of designated countries. A minimum grade three education gets a worker in, but more than three years of high school excludes them. Married applicants are preferred, but single workers with dependants are allowed to apply.

Entry requirements as "Temporary Foreign Workers" are less clear. According to HRSDC, workers must satisfy applicable immigration laws and be of legal working age in the province they're going to; employers must provide officials with a signed contract, pay round trip flight costs, ensure medical coverage until provincial coverage kicks in and ensure quality working and living conditions, among other things.

In Guatemala, applicants first deal with the vetting process of the International Migration Organization (IMO), the Geneva-based international organization that provides recruiting and screening services for the TFWP in Guatemela. Applying to work in Canada requires both physical and psychological assessment and, claimed Jose, an Aldergrove greenhouse worker new to working in B.C., a background check that includes inquiries into a candidate's involvement with radical political factions.

Once a worker's application is approved in their own country, an employment contract is signed and Canadian immigration officials prepare a work visa. The B.C. farmer flies the temporary workers to Vancouver, often meeting them personally at the airport.

The first SAWP crews arrive in January or February to prepare greenhouses and land for the growing season. Others don't arrive until high season starts in May or June. Everyone can stay for up to eight months, though some may be here for only a few weeks during harvest. Those contracted through TFWP may stay for up to two years.

Since most employers provide on-farm housing, workers often drive straight to the acreage where they will spend most of the coming months. There they will usually work six days a week, with the exception of Sunday afternoon trips to church or grocery stores. Most are here to make as much money as they can and are happy to work every day if they're allowed. A group of Ladner workers The Tyee spoke to said working less than six days can be a source of anxiety: the more free time they have, the more hard-earned money they spend in Canada instead of at home.

Contracts under the federal programs conclude with what's intended to be an exercise in mutual accountability. As the agreement expires, employers must fill out an online review for each worker. Sent directly to the Secretariat of Labour in Mexico, the document will be key to deciding whether that worker becomes a "named" worker -- pre-approved to come back next year. Once home, workers also fill out reviews of their Canadian employer for the Ministry of Labour, which are checked against employer reviews of them (although not shared with Canadian officials administering the program here).

After picking up a few presents for their kids and saying goodbye to co-workers at the end of the season, workers head right back to YVR to catch a flight home.

For some, their visit with family will be as short as four months before they come back to tend to crops in B.C.

Between the rows

Beyond these basic facts however, a temporary field worker's life is lived apart. Exhausting daily schedules, remote bunkhouses, and differences of language keep many isolated from contact with wider B.C. society.

Partly as a result, popular notions of who these workers are and what they experience rely heavily on the accounts of various interested parties.

Labour advocates -- notably the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) -- are prominent. The UFCW annually generates a "Status of Migrant Workers in Canada" report alleging Third World housing, a dire lack of health and safety training, negligible workplace inspection, and the regular, arbitrary repatriation of problem workers. (Workers can be asked to leave a farm if they break their employment contract, but the union is concerned that farmers don't need a good enough reason to make that claim.)

In the union's view, neither federal program adequately protects workers from abuse at the hands of corporate agriculture. Instead, it sees the "evolution of a permanently-exploited migrant underclass" in British Columbia, against which the only defense is a union card.

The British Columbia Agricultural Council (BCAC), which represents 14,000 farmers (or 90 per cent of all B.C. agriculture), sees things differently. Its chair, Rhonda Driediger, admits to the occasional poor treatment of field workers by irresponsible employers in the past, but insists that now, "because we've been proactive, we don't have a lot of issues. I don't see that there's any great crisis out there."

Their lot is already a hard one, farmers argue, what with cheap imports, few subsidies and fickle weather. Worker rights are already well protected, Driediger says, and don't warrant a union interfering with the rare advantage of an efficient, flexible and hardworking labour crew.

In 2008, the council asked the B.C. Labour Relations Board to exempt temporary and seasonal farm workers from B.C.'s labour relations code -- effectively prohibiting collective bargaining in the fields. The request failed, but exposed the depth of antagonism between the farmer's association and the union.

Federal government changes to both programs last spring introduced consequences for neglectful employers and limits to returning workers. Employers who fail to meet housing and employment standards can now be barred from the program for two years, and have their names published on a government website blacklist. A more controversial change is a new four on/four off rule. Starting April 1, 2015, workers who have laboured in B.C. for four years in total won't be allowed to return for work for another four years.

Like the Vancouver commuters who zip past Carmine, Alberto and the rest of their crew working in the fields of Delta, the dueling narratives of exploited workers and struggling farmers seldom check in with the reality between the rows.

When The Tyee did just that, we found a community like any other -- one that can't be painted with a single brush. We heard a diversity of opinions about what's best for migrant workers in B.C. And for every worker who favoured the union and its services, there were many more who wished only for a season of work and to return home to their family.

One virtually universal opinion suggests that conditions are not such a hardship that workers yearn for escape. Rather, they are more likely to fear running afoul of the employer and being booted from the program. The fact that none of the many workers we interviewed wished to be photographed or named in full would seem to reflect that concern. Only retirees, and one worker who reported a foul relationship with his employer were highly critical of the program and their working conditions. Everyone else we met agreed on one thing: they wanted to be back in B.C. again for the next growing season.

As Ernesto put it: "This is a dream, to be here."

In the days ahead we'll hear more from Ernesto, his roommates, and other workers about the opportunities and challenges they find in Canada. (Names and some details are altered to ensure anonymity.) We'll examine who's working out between the rows or under glass, and reality-check the competing rhetoric that surrounds worker advocacy. We'll hear more from those who think a union is the answer -- and others who don't. And we'll look at some innovative ideas to make sure that respect and opportunity receive as much attention in B.C.'s fields as what's grown there.

[Tags: Labour and Industry.]  [Tyee]

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