Improve integration of migrant farm workers

Jenna Hennebry April 9th, 2012
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The second fatal car accident involving temporary foreign workers in recent weeks, just shortly after the horrific car crash near Hampstead, Ont., in February that killed nine migrant farm workers, has left communities across the country in mourning.

It also has many wondering whether more should be done to protect migrant workers during their time in Canada.

Research demonstrates that migrant farm workers face elevated health risks from many factors, including unsafe transportation and/or lack of training and valid permits for vehicle operation.

There is no question that unsafe transportation or lack of training and appropriate licensing pose heightened risks for migrant farm workers.

Of the migrant farm workers I surveyed in Ontario with my colleagues, Dr. Kerry Preibisch and Dr. Janet McLaughlin, nearly 50 per cent of those transported to work sites said they were transported in vans, and more than half said there were not enough seatbelts for all of the passengers in the vans.

But access to safe transportation is not the only challenge facing migrant workers when they come to Canada.

As shown in a recent study I published with the Institute for Research on Public Policy, the inclusion of migrant farmworkers in the communities where they live and work is superficial at best, despite laudable efforts by non-governmental organizations, community groups, churches and unions.

Every year, roughly 30,000 agricultural migrant workers arrive in Canada as part of the temporary foreign worker program. Although the program is intended to address shortterm labour demands, migrant labour has become a permanent fixture in Canada’s agricultural sector, and most of the migrant workers in agriculture return to the same communities year after year, sometimes for more than 25 years.

Many live in limbo between their home countries and Canada, in a state that could only be described as permanently temporary.

Using the labour migrant integration scale to assess the level of integration for migrant farm workers, Canada fares poorly on indicators such as the protection of their human rights, labour rights, access to health care and levels of community engagement and belonging.

Despite Canada’s more than 45 years of experience in agricultural labour migration, our programs do not measure up.

Migrant farm workers need a better support system while in Canada, including full access to benefits and better protection of their rights. We need to improve policy and practice in the management of temporary labour migration in agriculture by including greater autonomy for workers in choosing where they work and live, regulating the recruitment process, more accessible information on health and safety and rights, and access to certain settlement services.

Improved communication and transportation is especially important to this group of migrants, since they typically live and work in rural areas, without easy access to telephones or transportation.

Indeed, a few employers have made small changes that heighten workers’ sense of belonging while here.

The simple provision of telephones in migrant workers’ housing and access to transportation (such as making a vehicle available to those with a valid driver’s licence) significantly reduces their social isolation, improves their access to services and enables better engagement with local communities.

Yet, employers and communities need the support of federal and provincial governments. And not only through financial support but also through providing improved access to resources such as translated health and safety information or workplace training in Spanish.

Further, governments need to step up their monitoring and regulation of workplace health and safety as well as migrant farmworker housing – and there has to be concrete consequences for employers found to be in violation of contracts or labour and safety standards. The current system is largely complaints-based, and migrant workers are certainly not likely to file complaints or undertake legal action, not only because of the financial costs, but also due to their precarious employment and migration status.

Vehicle safety and appropriate licensing must also be ensured through more rigorous inspection and regulation – something that could have aided in the prevention of the deaths of migrant farm workers in British Columbia in March 2007, and the recent deaths of migrant farm workers near Hampstead, among others.

Given the growing presence of temporary migrant workers in communities across Canada and the reality that there is nothing temporary about these migrants, who play an essential role in Canada’s economy, it is certainly time to make improvements. What we need first is a shared commitment to take significant steps toward improved integration of migrant farm workers and to helping make Canada’s communities truly welcoming.


Jenna Hennebry is the author of the new Institute for Research on Public Policy study, Permanently Temporary? Agricultural Migrant Workers and Their Integration in Canada. She is an associate professor in the department of communication studies and the Balsillie School of International Affairs, as well as the associate director of the International Migration Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University.