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Jamaican workers expelled from Ontario farm after protesting poor conditions: advocates

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The Canadian and Jamaican governments are investigating allegations that an Ontario farm sent a group of Jamaican migrant workers home after they held a one-day strike to protest what they described as substandard living conditions.

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The Canadian and Jamaican governments are investigating allegations that an Ontario farm sent a group of Jamaican migrant workers home after they held a one-day strike to protest what they described as substandard living conditions.

Pearnel Charles Jr., Jamaica's minister of labour, says he met four of the five workers in question after a local newspaper reported they'd been expelled from Canada as "payback" for their work stoppage, and for blowing the whistle about their treatment to the media.

"They expressed to me that they were disappointed with being returned early, which I think is normal and understandable. And they had some questions as to exactly what the reasons were," Charles Jr. told As It Happens guest host Katie Simpson.

"One of the young men said he was going back to the same farm for six years and that in that time he had been told that he operated very efficiently. So he was shocked that he was sent back."

The men were in Canada as part of the federal government's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. Maja Stefanovska, a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada, says the Canadian government is working with its Jamaican counterparts to investigate the allegations.

"We take our responsibility to protect the health and safety of temporary foreign workers and the integrity of the [temporary foreign worker program] very seriously," Stefanovska said in an emailed statement.

The farm in question, which is located in southwestern Ontario, has not responded to a request for comment from CBC.

Videos show overflowing toilets, flooded living quarters
The Jamaican Observer first reported the allegations in June. The newspaper quoted workers at the farm who said their boss had berated them for refusing to work after their already cramped living quarters flooded with wastewater from overflowing toilets.

The newspaper described cellphone videos, surreptitiously filmed by the workers, which showed a flooded bunkhouse and a man who describes himself as the farm's owner yelling at migrants who refused to work.

The footage later circulated on social media, and parts of it were published earlier this week by CTV News.

CBC has obtained the videos in question from an organization called Justice for Migrant Workers. Organizer Chris Ramsaroop says workers on the farm shot the footage in late May or early June, and shared it with the organization.

One video shows a row of clogged toilets in wooden stalls, with shower curtains as doors. Another shows water flooding into an adjacent room.

A third video shows a man in a baseball cap who identifies himself as the property's owner. He is swearing at a group of workers, berating them for refusing to adhere to their schedule, and accusing them of clogging the drains themselves by pouring grease down them.

When the workers try to deny the accusations, he repeatedly interrupts them.

"That's bullshit," he can be heard yelling. "This is costing me a f--king fortune."

He later tells them: "If you choose not to work today, that will be a problem.… You don't pick and choose the day you want to work. Anyone have a problem with my schedule?"
CBC is withholding the farm's name at Justice for Migrant Workers' request. Ramsaroop says the workers did not give the organization permission to name the farm, and doing so could expose the remaining workers to further repercussions.

Asked how he felt watching the videos, he said: "There's anger, just frustration [and there's] outrage, because this is pretty much the same story that I've been seeing for years now."

"A further kick to the gut, too, is that, you know, workers who did the right thing to try to assert their rights in the workplace have been sent home."

Labour minister meets with expelled workers
Charles Jr. says the workers he met told him they did not speak to the media, and that the issue with the toilets was later resolved.

He said the farm's owners told the ministry, through a liaison, that it sent the workers home because of "weather-related issues that might have contributed to them having lower production."

This isn't the first time workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program have sounded the alarm about poor treatment and substandard living conditions.

In April 2022, Jamaican migrant farm workers in the Niagara Region wrote an open letter to Jamaica's Ministry of Labour describing the program as "systematic slavery."

The workers described being "treated like mules" by their Canadian employers, who force them to live in cramped, rat-infested quarters with no privacy and with cameras installed. They said that if they complain, their bosses threaten to send them home.

Stefanovska says the Liberal government made changes to the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program in its 2022 federal budget "improving the quality of employer inspections and holding employers accountable for the treatment of workers."

According to federal guidelines, employers must provide temporary foreign workers with "adequate, suitable and affordable housing." If they fail to comply, they can face a $1 million fine, and a temporary or permanent ban from the program.

Stefanovska urged migrant workers who feel they are being mistreated to call the government's toll-free tip line at 1-866-602-9448.

Provincial and federal responsibility
Ramsaroop says that at the end of the day, the farm owners still wield all the power.

"The program is operated by the employer groups.... When the employers lobby the federal government, they get what they want," he said.

"It's not just power, but it's power coupled with racism. We see the situation of Black and brown workers who feed us, and that they're treated very differently than other groups of people in our society."

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) has urged the provincial government to step in and include migrant workers in the Ontario Labour Relations Act, which would guarantee them the right to freedom of association.

"If these workers were unionized, they would have been able to exercise their right to strike," Santiago Escobar, UFCW's national representative, said in a press release.

Ramsaroop agrees, and says migrant workers should also be given full protections under the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act, Employment Standards Act, Residential Tenancies Act and workers compensation program.

"We've got to hold both levels of government, their feet to the fire," he said.

The Ontario government did not comment on the expelled Jamaican workers. But Connie Osborne, a spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, said migrant workers are guaranteed protections under the Agricultural Employees Protection Act (AEPA), which allows workers to join employees' associations.

Those associations, according to the AEPA, can "make representations respecting the terms and conditions of employment." Ramsaroop noted they are not the same as labour unions and cannot engage in collective bargaining.

"The AEPA protects the rights of agricultural employees while recognizing the unique characteristics of agriculture, including, but not limited to, its seasonal nature, sensitivity to time, the perishability of agricultural products and the need to protect animal and plant life," Osborne said in an emailed statement.

An official visit to Canada
Charles Jr., meanwhile, says he's planning an official visit to Canada to personally inspect the working conditions on the farms.

"If it is that we find conditions that are favourable and that are, you know, upholding the standards that we desire, then I will not be hesitant to congratulate those farm owners and farm managers and farm workers," he said.

"But if we find conditions that are not favourable and that do not meet the standards, we should also be equally as determined to make sure that those conditions are exposed."

Fichiers joints


Secteurs économiques

Agriculture and horticulture workers

Types de contenu

Cas d’abus documentés

Groupes cibles

Législateurs, Sensibilisation du public et Chercheurs

Pertinence géographique

Ontario et National relevance