Canada, May 15, 2020 – Migrant food and farm worker groups from Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec are jointly raising the alarm about the Agri-Food Immigration Pilot Program to be launched by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) just now. This program gives unfair and excessive power to employers and excludes workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), which represents the majority of food and farm workers in the country. Most other migrant workers will also be excluded because of harsh qualification criteria. Quebec workers are also excluded. The Migrant Rights Network is calling for permanent resident status for all, without exclusion or employer control to support essential migrant workers.
“At a time when JBS and Cargill are re-opening without making any changes to ensure worker safety, tying migrant workers’ ability to stay in the country permanently to the goodwill of employers gives employers a dangerous amount of power. Workers will be forced to choose between their health, or even their lives, or a chance at stability and family unity,” says Marco Luciano, Director, Migrante Alberta.
The Agri-Food Immigration program requires applicants to have a “job offer” letter from the employer. This requirement means workers will be reluctant to exercise their right to refuse unsafe work if their future ability to apply for permanent residence hangs in the balance.
JBS Meats has had over 600 cases of COVID-19, and one death, but continues to operate. J.J, a current worker at JBS who is afraid to use his name says, “We are concerned about going back to work. JBS keeps on calling us to go back. We are not sure if the workplace is safe. Our status is Temporary Foreign Worker. We are afraid that we will be terminated and sent back home if we take a leave of absence because of our safety. Or that they might not process our papers – our visa and work permit will expire in October.”
“For 54 years, migrant farm workers have demanded permanent residence status on arrival so that they could access the same rights and protections as other immigrants and citizens. While this new program is a direct result of decades of food and farmworkers courageously speaking out, it sets up impossible requirements that would shut most out”, says Robyn Bunn, from RAMA in Kelowna, BC. “This program is just smoke and mirrors – the government wants to look like it’s taking appropriate action during a pandemic, while in reality almost everyone is excluded.”
The Agri-Food Pilot Program excludes migrants in the SAWP even though these workers make up over 65% of Canada’s migrant agricultural workforce and are essential to the food supply. Many SAWP workers work in Canada eight out of 12 months each year, in many cases for over 20 years at a time but with no path to Permanent Residency.
“We do hard work in Canada – we work outside in the cold and in the heat – and we can’t apply for anything. Why are we being left out of these opportunities? All migrants deserve landed status on arrival,” says James, father of 3 from Jamaica, a migrant farm worker who has been working in Niagara since 2007.
“The federal government is willing to open borders, charter planes, and give employers $50 million to offset costs of quarantine. Many provinces have created programs to ease the farm labour shortage. Yet migrant farm workers – essential workers that keep the food system running – are being excluded from permanent residency? It makes no sense,” says Kit Andres, Migrant Workers Alliance – Niagara. “COVID-19 has shown that migrant labour is essential to the Canadian economy.”
Exclusions also extend to fisheries. “The fisheries industry in the Atlantic Region relies heavily on thousands of migrant workers from around the world. These are essential workers and they should be able to lay permanent roots, access basic rights and protections and reunite with their families – excluding them from this immigration program is a slap in the face to essential workers ensuring we are fed during this pandemic,” says Ann Wheatley, Cooper Institute, Charlottetown.
The current Agri-Food Immigration Pilot Program excludes most low-waged migrants, who are people of colour, many of them Black men, working in Canada’s farms and factories, showing one more time the structural racism migrants workers have been subjected to for over half a century.
Facts: The Agri-Food Immigration Pilot Program & Migrant Workers
- Of the 98,495 work permits issued for temporary foreign workers in 2019, 56,850 were agricultural workers. The Agri-Food Pilot Program is restricted to only 2,750 applications per year, about 4.8% of the migrant agricultural workforce.
- The Agri-Food Immigration Pilot requires migrant workers to pass an English language test at Level 4. No support is provided for migrant workers to study for these tests, which are expensive and inaccessible in rural communities where workers are based. Many workers from the Caribbean, who only speak English, are failing the test. Many migrant workers are able to work and live in Canada, but do not speak English.
- The Agri-Food Immigration Pilot requires migrant workers to show Canadian accreditation for high school education. No support is provided for migrant workers to get this accreditation, which is expensive and done by private businesses, and is inaccessible in rural communities. Migrant workers are barred from studying while on a work permit, so cannot gain the accreditation here.
- The Agri-Food Immigration Pilot requires that workers are engaged in full-time work over the previous 12 months. As a result, all SAWP workers are excluded. Workers in fisheries are also excluded.
- The Agri-Food Immigration Pilot requires workers to be working for 12 months immediately before applying – but many workers have lost jobs or seen their hours reduced due to COVID-19.
- Migrant workers account for 12 per cent of Canada’s agricultural workforce, according to the Conference Board of Canada.
- Migrant workers face immense violations of their rights. A recent Toronto Star investigation documented 5,386 workplace related complaints by farmworkers from Mexico in a 9 year period.
- Coordination: Syed Hussan, 416-453-3632, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change
- Alberta: Marco Luciano, 780-966-5908, Migrante Alberta
- Atlantic: Ann Wheatley, 902-388-8183, Cooper Institute
- British Columbia
- Robyn Bunn, 250-215-1033, RAMA, Kelowna
- Alexandra Henao, 778-789-5076, Fuerza Migrante, Vancouver
- Byron Cruz, 604-315-7725, Sanctuary Health
- Ontario: Kit Andres, 905-324-2840, Migrant Workers Alliance – Niagara
- Quebec: Viviana Medina, 438 881 9174, Centre des travailleurs et travailleuses immigrants