July 2003, Volume 9, Number 3
Canada: Guest Workers
Saskatchewan in 2003 became the eighth province to participate in the
Commonwealth Caribbean and Mexican Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.
Southern Ontario farmers have been importing foreign farm workers for
over 25 years, and many of the foreign workers are employed in
greenhouses that produce tomatoes near Leamington, Ontario and in
Prime Minister Jean Chretien, in Mexico in March 2003, said "This
program where your farmers can come and work in Canada has worked
extremely well and now we are exploring (ways) to extend that to other
sectors. The bilateral seasonal agricultural workers program has been a
model for balancing the flow of temporary foreign workers with the needs
of Canadian employers."
Under the SAW program, Canadian farm employers paid for the airline
tickets of 12,000 Mexican workers in 2002 (workers repay half the cost
via deductions), provided seasonal housing for them and agreed to a wage
rate negotiated between the Mexican government and Human Resources
Development Canada (HRDC); Mexican consular officials have the right to
inspect worker housing. Under a special agreement between Canada and
Mexico, the seasonal workers are covered by Canadian Medicare. About 75
percent of the Mexican migrants return to Canada in subsequent years for
contracts lasting three to eight months.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has been active on behalf
of the guest workers, operating Migrant Worker Centers in Leamington and
Bradford, Ontario, and filing suit in June 2003, charging that Ontario
unlawfully excludes farm workers from its Occupational Health and Safety
Act. Ontario refused to allow farm workers to form unions, but the
Supreme Court of Canada ruled that ban unlawful, and Ontario farm workers
can now form associations.
Ontario has 60,000 farms that employ about 100,000 workers, including
20,000 migrant and seasonal workers. Leamington, Ontario is the "tomato
capital of Canada," and St. Michael's Roman Catholic church has masses in
both English and Spanish, with the Spanish services followed by a variety
of activities, including ESL classes.
In 2003, the British Columbia provincial government excluded farm
workers from the Employment Standards Act, so they do not qualify for
overtime and holiday pay. The Fraser Valley in British Columbia is the
berry capital of Canada, and most of pickers are Punjabi-speaking or
South Asian migrants, most of whom are organized into crews by
Darryl Dean, "A home away from home," Toronto Star, July 5, 2003. April
Lindgren, "Mexican worker program a model," CanWest News Service, March