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Death of migrant worker in Norfolk, Ont. prompts call to change permanent immigration status

Farm workers in Niagara Region are hoping for action from Canada and Jamaica’s Ministry of Labour departments on better living conditions on Canadian farms. The group wrote a letter on the subject a week before a migrant farm worker died at an address in Norfolk County in mid-August. Canadian Press / Universal Images Group

A coalition supporting migrant workers in Ontario is hoping a recent visit from a Jamaican politician to Niagara Region coupled with the recent death at a Norfolk, Ont., farm will put a spotlight on their push to change permanent residency legislation.

The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) is calling for the federal government to move on a program giving temporary foreign workers permanent residency status allowing equal rights and protection through labour laws.

The prodding comes almost two weeks after a group of seasonal workers wrote a letter to Jamaica’s minister of labour asking for better “living and working conditions” for their participation in Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP).

In the note, the complainants cited crowded housing with no privacy, verbal and property abuse as well as lack of protection from pesticides as issues.

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“We work for eight months on minimum wage and can’t survive for the four months back home,” the group said in its letter to the honorable Karl Samuda.

“The SAWP is exploitation at a seismic level.”

Aside from improved residency status, the workers are also seeking access to improved housing, a better abuse reporting system, farm transfer requests, and removal of deductions from paycheques.

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MWAC executive director Syed Hussan says the change that matters is the permanent residency status which would offer basic labour law protections and starts a path to implement the other requests.

“The issue with the province is that even if workers are included in these basic labour laws and protections, which they should be, they still have difficulty asserting those rights because doing so means you can be kicked out,” said Hussan.

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Samuda’s visit came within’ days of the passing a 57-year-old Jamaican worker in an Ontario farm work program.

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour and Jamaica’s equivalent agency confirmed the death of Garvin Yapp on Aug. 14 at a Norfolk County farm.

Both ministries say Yapp was operating a tobacco harvester when he suffered life-threatening injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene.

Ontario’s ministry says it has assigned a pair inspectors to the case and issued one order to P. & S. Van Berlo Ltd. in Norfolk.

Global News has attempted to reach out to the Van Berlo family for a statement, but had not received an answer as of the posting of this story on Monday afternoon.

Yapp had been travelling to Canada to work on farms for close to 35 years, according to Jamaica’s ministry.

Hussan said Yapp’s temporary worker status in Canada meant his family had not been able to see him for months, missing birthdays and other anniversaries.

“He should have been here with his family,” Hussan said.

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“He couldn’t do that because he didn’t have permanent resident status, and this is true for him, and … dozens of other people across the country who are farm workers.”

A spokesperson for Canada’s minister of employment says federal officials are in communication with the province on an investigation into the SAWP complaints made in the seasonal workers letter.

Press secretary Tara Beauport said in an email that the ministry has strengthened inspection processes, expanded a tip line in multiple languages, increased support for migrant worker organizations and is working with partners to improve regulations around accommodation.

“We know there is more work to do. We will keep investing in supports, holding non-compliant employers accountable, and improving the regulations which underpin this program,” Beauport said.

“The future of the program depends on the health and safety of workers, and the compliance of employers who participate in it.”

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