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To Help Migrants, There's Work to Be Done

We asked BC's temp farm workers what they'd improve. Their answers may surprise. Last in a reader-funded series.

Justin Langille 17 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. With files from Cindy Hugo. To learn more about the Tyee Reporting Fellowships, go here.

A hearty plate of arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) coated with a thick glaze of sweet brown adobo sauce waits for us at Ernesto's table.

Work is finally slowing for the season in the Delta tomato greenhouses where our hosts spend their days, allowing us to take them up on an invitation for a Sunday dinner of authentic Mexican cuisine.

We sit down to eat with our hosts as the light of a late August sunset pours in through the back door. There is laughter as we discuss adobo recipes and everyone's plans for going home.

Rolando will return to the town of Tenango del Valle in Southern Mexico in two weeks. Despite a long season here, he won't take time off until after he helps a friend harvest a large crop of lettuce. The other men we dine with will pack suitcases and leave this small house shortly after, carrying home gifts and stories for their families.

Ernesto won't leave until the greenhouse he works in shuts down in November. He'll continue to bike to work by himself and live in this house on his own.

It's a privilege to work longer, he says. "But won't you be lonely without your co-workers?" I ask Ernesto, as he shakes his head while they tease and laugh with him.

A focus on the reward

Advocates, employers, governments and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) inform the public about worker issues, but seldom do we hear from migrant farm workers themselves.

In church gyms and union offices, we met industrious Mexican and Guatemalan men bent on working long hours and earning approval to come back to the same positions next year -- and little else. Everyone we spoke with has a house to build, a small business to finance or crops of their own to raise, not to mention a family to support.

During their stay, workers seek support from pastors and union organizers who pitch for membership. Sunday chicken dinners at church are accompanied by short sermons on the grace of Jesus. Help from union offices with setting up a Canadian bank account can result in discussions on the value of collective bargaining.

They're happy to file for their Canadian tax returns with union organizers, but most won't join the UFCW. Of the nearly 4,000 migrant farm workers in the province, only about 60 are involved in collective agreements with the UFCW.

A distrust of corrupt Mexican unions and alleged instructions against joining Canadian unions from program officials in Mexico were among the reasons they gave for not considering joining a union. However, many also described their current employment as ideal and rejected the idea of collective bargaining as beneficial.

Farm unions are legal in B.C., but most workers believed that joining would put their job here at risk. "You shouldn't even try, because the patron becomes your enemy," Ernesto says. Workers having conflicts with employers should keep working and finish their contracts, he told us.

"It's better to wait until next season and maybe go somewhere else," says Ernesto.

Self-advocacy training

Justicia for Migrant Workers B.C. provides migrant farm workers with an alternative neither the church nor the union offers: self-advocacy training.

For the past six years, the Vancouver collective has invited workers to discuss issues and learn strategies to navigate the employment system. They do casework for individuals, but prefer working with several workers so many can learn from the situation of one worker. This year, they began offering "language for liberation" classes to teach workers the English necessary to address their own situations.

Training workers for self-advocacy is necessary, says Justicia's Adriana Paz, because "right now workers... are not in the equation in any instance. Having the workers at the centre, that is the idea."

For farmers, "the ideal is just having a smooth running program that sort of ebbs and flows with the needs of agriculture," says Rhonda Driediger, chair of the British Columbia Agriculture Council, the main association representing the majority of farmer's interests in B.C.

"Is there the odd guy that's an idiot who doesn't provide nice accommodations? Yeah," said Driediger. "But we're rooting them out so there won't be very many of them left."

When problems arise between employers and workers, the BCAC and the Mexican consulate deal with them and move on, says Driediger. Employers value trained migrant workers dedicated to coming back every year. They provide stability and productivity; following best employment practices makes economic sense for employers. Their work ensures crops are well tended to and harvested in a timely manner, which is great for the bottom line, she says.

Before hiring help from Mexico in 2007, Nirmal Dhaliwal had problems finding consistent help on his cherry and apple orchard near Oliver, B.C. Parts of his crop would rot before he could get it to market. Now, a crew that's acquainted with his farm ensures his crops come off swiftly with minimal bruising, allowing him to profit in uneasy times.

"If we didn't have [the SAWP program] you know, we might as well just stop farming, let's put it that way. It's not worth the hassle."

New rules

On April 1, 2011, the federal government introduced changes to Canadian migrant worker programs.

Job offers will receive increased assessment, and employers who fail to meet program wage and housing standards will be banned from hiring foreign workers for two years. There is even a public blacklisting website, where the names of non-compliant employers will be listed. A few months into its first season, no employers have made the list yet.

The most controversial change however is the "four on/four off" rule, which limits the time workers can spend in Canada. As of April 1, 2015, workers, including migrant farm workers, who have spent a cumulative four years working in Canada won't be allowed to return for another four years. Mexican workers come to B.C. under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), an international agreement, so they won't be affected by the changes. However, workers coming from other countries, like Guatemala, will be.

The purpose of the change is to ensure temporary foreign workers with no path to permanent residency (like migrant farm workers) don't lose ties with their home countries, according to the federal government.

The rule won't take effect for four years, so it's difficult to know what effect it will have on workers or farmers who depend on the same trained workers to return every year.

Divided over 'four-on, four-off'

Union officials feel it unfairly penalizes workers who have been coming to Canada to work for years and depend on the income. Stan Raper, national director of the UFCW's Agricultural Workers Alliance, calls the rule "insanity" and plans to work through the NDP for an exemption for migrant farm workers with UFCW collective agreements.

The changes will affect Delta greenhouse workers like Cesar and Miguel, two workers from Guatemala we met at a church dinner last spring who have been here for a year.

Thrilled with their contract at Delta greenhouse, they were planning to come for another five years. If it gets cut short to four, they won't be devastated, they tell us.

"Personally, I think it would be OK because we would share time with the family," says Cesar.

It will also give others a chance to come and have the same chance they've had. "People from Guatemala want to have this opportunity," says Miguel from under the beak of his baseball hat. "If more people come, we are helping others to do better."

Time to share

Ernesto and his coworkers are here under the SAWP, so they will be exempt from the "four on/four off" rule.

However, like Cesar and Miguel, they say it's time more people have the opportunity they've had.

"I think that the program should include other workers from the city, because there are problems in the cities, not only in the fields," says Alberto, a modest man in his mid-thirties with a wife and son at home.

He hails from Oaxaca, a state that has been plagued with poverty caused by political and economic volatility in the past decade.

"There are many people who need these kinds of opportunities."

Rolando asks why more women don't have the opportunity they do. In other provinces he's seen some women working on farms, but only 155 women came to work on B.C. farms in 2010, according to Canadian government records.

In a 2009 policy brief, Evelyn Encalada Grez, a University of Toronto PhD candidate focusing on female migrant farm workers in Canada, also suggested Canada should stream more migrant farm work to women.

"Women's participation in such programs contributes to development goals of economic growth and gender empowerment in sending countries," wrote Grez.

Family is another consideration for Rolando. He's worked at farms across Canada for over a decade, an opportunity that has allowed him to develop a small taxi business, invest in land and support family.

"I wish my brothers could come here too," he says.

"My family is very poor; I'm the only one who is doing good."

Suggestions from the fields

Our reporting in this series isn't an exhaustive survey of all migrant farm workers in B.C., but it has been informed by the stories and opinions of workers from across Mexico and Guatemala with diverse experiences working in Canada.

Based on those conversations with workers, here are some principles worth considering whenever government takes another look at the programs that supply the hands that bring in the harvest hands in B.C. fields and orchard.

1. Worker engagement

Besides a review of their Canadian employers that Mexican workers complete for their government, workers are afforded little say about the programs they work within.

Some workers have a relationship with their employers in which they feel comfortable to make requests and provide suggestions about their contracts. Most workers we spoke with are happy with the contracts they have.

However, as principal stakeholders, workers have their own ideas about the terms of the program. Enhancing the transfer process to a new farm for those who want more work when their contract at one farm runs out, and broadening admission requirements to family, women and urban dwellers were just two of the ideas workers offered.

Workers should contact the immigration and human resource branches of the federal government responsible for the program if they want to provide information or suggestions, B.C.'s Ministry of Labour, Citizen's Services and Open Government workers wrote in an email.

Considering workers we spoke with didn't know the 1-800 number for B.C.'s employment standard branch hotline, reaching out to the federal government seems unlikely.

The Canadian end of migrant farm worker programs could benefit from an accessible avenue for workers to submit their concerns, ideas and suggestions for future program changes.

2. Mediation

Employer and union representatives both confirmed current labour relations around migrant farm workers are polarized, offering little room for co-operation.

For years, B.C. employers and the UFCW have sparred for supremacy with numerous applications for certification and decertification, but little co-operation.

To ensure workers who do want to exercise their right to join unions can, the provincial government might consider having representatives from the BCAC and UFCW participate in a mediation program, such as the Relationship Enhancement Program provided by the LRB.

That program is "intended for parties who are experiencing difficulties in their ongoing relationship and are committed to devoting the necessary time and resources to make changes happen," according to the LRB's website.

3. Diversity of Resources

Unions may not be the best institutions for supporting migrant farm workers who live and work between two different nations.

"The benefits of unionism in Canada are often the greatest over longer periods of time, when negotiated wage rates, protections against layoffs and the right to challenge dismissals become more valuable," UBC business professor Mark Thompson wrote in a 2009 policy issues analysis.

What's the alternative? Have the federal government invest in several community agencies that can provide some of the same services and advocacy as the union, says Thompson.

It's a recommendation first issued in Cultivating Farmworker Rights, a 2008 report on migrant farm workers in B.C. authored by Thompson and a team of colleagues.

If groups like Justicia or other community support organizations received sustainable funding "they could perform some of these roles," said Thompson. "For decades the federal government has funded environmental groups and women's groups in their efforts... how is this any different?"

'Gracias, y hasta pronto'

We thank Ernesto, Rolando and their roommates for their hospitality and promise to phone and say farewell before they leave for the season.

It's late, and these men look tired as they prepare tomorrow's lunch and chat with loved ones on cell phones. As we walk the worn tire tracks of the dirt driveway Ernesto bikes down every morning, only crickets and the whirr of passing cars can be heard.

On the outskirts of Metro Vancouver and in the Okanagan Valley, thousands of men like Ernesto come every year from worlds few of us know in search of a better future.

We heard rumors of employer intimidation, rotten housing conditions and abuse, but these remained rumors. Advocates were hesitant (or unable) to take us to farms with terrible conditions. Workers spoke of stories from other provinces, and some farms where foremen drove them harder than others; but nowhere so bad they did not want to return for another season.

We met many who have established relationships with employers, live in relative comfort, and consider themselves fortunate to be here.

Workers want basic tax services and advice in navigating the employment system from union organizers, but few seek collective bargaining. Aside from steady work every year, they'd like more contact with the communities they live in, a break from the isolation of working and living in one place for months.

The UFCW has described these temporary guest workers as members of an emerging "permanently exploited migrant underclass" in Canada. There is another angle to it, revealed in various conversations we had with migrant labourers. By participating in the guest worker program here, they believed they were raising their economic status back home. In the fields and greenhouses of British Columbia, we met family men and entrepreneurs chasing upward mobility in Mexico, Guatemala and elsewhere.  [Tyee]

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