Many migrant workers work in unsafe conditions: study

TORONTO – A tragic car accident in Hampstead, Ontario – just north of Stratford – has left 11 people, including 10 migrant workers dead.

Migrant workers are a large part of the agricultural industry in Ontario, with over 18,000 working in the province as of 2010.

With 18,000 in Ontario – and 23,000 across Canada – these workers are an integral part of agricultural businesses but – according to one study – fail to integrate into Canadian society.

Global News spoke with Jenna Hennebry, a researcher with the Institute for Research in Public Policy, and author of the forthcoming study “Permanently Temporary? Agricultural Migrant Workers and their Integration in Canada,” about the life of migrant workers in Canada, the hurdles they face, and the sometimes unsafe conditions in which they work.

Global News: What did you find about foreign workers in your study?

Jenna Hennebry: The study is actually a culmination of roughly 10 years of research on my part. I combined together a lot of different sources of data including a survey I did with colleagues with around 600 migrant agriculture workers in Ontario. So the study that I did with IRPP [The Institute for Research in Public Policy] looked at the extent to which migrant farm workers are integrated into Canadian society and into the communities in which they live and work.
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It’s sort of applying the concept of integration that we use when we think about permanent residents – and the extent that they’re integrated – to migrant workers because I’ve made the argument that migrant workers are – these workers and their presence in Canada is far from temporary. It’s important to think about what that might mean In terms of integration for this particular group.

A primary thing that I did in this study is that I created a foreign worker integration scale that I then apply to Canada’s seasonal agricultural worker program and the low-skilled pilot agricultural stream. I looked at to what extent Canada measures up in terms of integrating these groups, on integration factors in terms of labour rights, protection of human rights, access to services, community involvement and things that are comparable with Canadians. Based on the research that we’ve collected, as well as scholarly research in the area, I concluded that Canada doesn’t in fact measure up terribly well on the scale.

GN: What are some of the factors that keep them from integrating fully?

JH: Some of the primary factors range from structural things such as having their work permit tied to their employers. So their access to rights are basically tied to their particular employers – to named employers- their rights in Canada are basically contingent on their employment. That is quite the significant barrier.

Other things such as no-access to permanent residency. Even for workers who have been coming to Canada for 25 years every summer for example and might be working and living in the same communities and are obviously quite involved and integrated economically but have no access to permanent residency. Those are the kind of structural things.

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Now some of the every-day things are things such as poor language skills and not having access to services for settlement and immigration – services that typically provide support to immigrants. The immigrant service providers are not funded to provide any kind of services or support to temporary foreign workers, so that often leads to a problem as well, since workers can’t even take advantage of the types of resources that other immigrants might be able to take advantage of.

GN: Are these issues that the government is addressing?

JH: It’s not really seen as an objective of the program. For the most part, most of the program has been designed with the assumption that it’s filling temporary labour needs. The problem is that these labour demands or desires are far from temporary. We’ve had temporary labour migration in agriculture in particular for over 45 years and it’s expanded significantly, now we have a new program as well, so we have two programs that can bring people into this kind of work.

We’ve also seen in the data, the majority of the workers that come into Canada through this seasonal agricultural program are coming in repeatedly, meaning they are return workers. So upwards of 75 per cent of workers that are in Canada in 2010 from Mexico, for example, are return workers that were here the year before.

GN: So the workers are far from temporary.

JH: It’s really not a temporary program. The other factor that I can demonstrate with statistics is that we’ve got many of the same employers bringing in workers year after year. There is roughly 1600 employers bringing in workers through the seasonal agricultural worker program and a great number of those are sort of repeat employers that had [Labour Market Opinion] LMO’s in previous years. They had approved labour market opinions to hire workers in previous years.
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So we know that it’s long-term in terms of the demand or the desire for these workers, and then we also know that many of these workers are return workers and they come back year after year. The stats from our study indicate that of the roughly 600 migrant farm workers we spoke to from Jamaica and Mexico, there was an average of 7-9 years participation in the program. Further still, some 65 per cent of those people that we spoke to are interested in permanent residency even though there is no access to that.

GN: Why is it that employers are bringing these “temporary” workers back year after year?

JH: It’s not that they pay them less. The prevailing wage is set by the government in consultation with the sending country. In many ways, it’s [wages] actually quite decent from year to year. They are set as a prevailing wage that’s negotiated annually with sending countries at the table.

It’s about having a flexible workforce that’s on hand and isn’t going to leave when you need them to work at 6a.m., they don’t have families to attend to, they don’t have social networks necessarily, and they’re not going to refuse unsafe work or work that is difficult because they’re basically dependant on this work.

GN: Have workers reported working in unsafe conditions?

JH: When we asked the roughly 600 migrant farm workers we spoke to, many indicated that yes, indeed they would accept work that was unsafe, because of a fear of loss of employment. Many also indicated they would work when injured or ill because of, again, the same reason. And a significant number indicated that they knew their colleagues would work when sick or injured. Fear of loss of employment is a pretty big motivator and fear of being removed from the program in subsequent years basically means that workers are much more likely to accept unsafe or work that they maybe don’t want to do or work when ill or injured. So I would say that yes that is quite common.