The Mexican Consulate in Vancouver says appropriate steps are being taken to look after migrant workers employed in the Okanagan.
According to Ramón Moreno, co-ordinator of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, the consulate works to ensure the protection of the rights for more than 18,000 Mexican nationals who participate in the program every year in Canada.
“We work closely with Canadian authorities at the local and provincial levels in order to ensure that labour conditions are met, and properly enforced in cases of noncompliance. Housing is a crucial aspect in the SAWP,” wrote Moreno in an email to the Western News. He confirmed the consulate recently arranged for the transfer of two Mexican workers that were working under substandard conditions in a farm in Summerland.
“We have been informed that Service Canada will look into the conditions that the workers have denounced, and this Consulate General will work closely with the competent Canadian authorities in this deplorable case,” wrote Moreno.
But the squalid living conditions that saw the two farm workers rescued from the Summerland farm are not an isolated incident, according to one advocate for worker rights.
Amy Cohen is one of the organizers of Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA), which is in its second year of working to support the 1,200 Latin American and Caribbean workers employed each year in the Okanagan under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.
“Lots of the kind of day-to-day things we do are translation, interpretation, rides, but also helping workers negotiate the bureaucracy of Canada,” said Cohen. “A lot of them don’t speak English and a lot of them aren’t familiar with their rights. They are not told very clearly or given copies of their rights in their language.”
Along with providing workers with copies of their rights in their own language, RAMA also intervenes in crisis cases. Substandard housing isn’t the only issue faced by the migrant workers, which also includes people from Jamaica, Guatemala and other Caribbean countries, who are also partners with Canada and Mexico in the SWAP program.
“Awful living conditions is one example. There have been other examples like harassment from bosses,” she said. “Anything from physical or sexual harassment to verbal and emotional harassment. Those are the most common kinds that we come in contact with and workers tell us about.”
One type of verbal harassment Cohen said they hear about regularly shows why many of these workers are afraid to come forward and complain, whether it is to their consulate, the B.C. Fruit Growers Association or other groups.
“The boss will follow them around and say ‘you better work faster or you’re going home.’” said Cohen. “Just them complaining to us is dangerous for them. What has happened in the past, as long as the program has existed, is that any worker who is labelled as problematic … is either deported immediately or not brought back the following year. Workers are extremely conscious and aware of that.”
Cohen cites the case of one worker who was injured on the job. His employer refused to take him to the emergency room; RAMA did, however, and also filled out a WCB claim form for him.
“He is not back this year,” said Cohen. “The employer said that was for whatever reason but the worker believes it was because he complained and got outside workers involved.”
The government uses the lack of complaints as an indication the SAWP program is working well according to Cohen, who thinks the real amount of problem situations for the migrant workers is “really, really high.”
“We need random, surprise inspections to look at the housing conditions and the working conditions; have all workers interviewed,” said Cohen. “I wouldn’t want to guess, but the majority of workers we speak to have major complaints about living or working conditions.”
BCFGA president Fred Steele said that though they have no formal education for growers in their responsibilities under SAWP, they do stress that the rules need to be followed, both for the protection of the workers, and to preserve the program, which he considers vital to the industry.