Have you ever wondered about the source of the produce you use? Or who processes it? As consumers in this day and age, we find ourselves disconnected from our food system and who is involved in it. There are some of us who believe that buying locally is better – this, unfortunately, may often not be the case. There are great injustices occurring in the agricultural production sector in Canada with regards to the temporary/seasonal workers involved. In this article, I am going to discuss the indentured labour and exploitation of migrant workers that’s happening in our very own backyard.
Min Sook Lee’s documentary, Migrant Dreams, gives evidence and confirmation of the conditions that these farmworkers are facing in Canada. It shines the spotlight on the Leamington greenhouse industry where a group of female Indonesian workers are employed under the low-wage stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) . Throughout the film, basic human rights are denied to these foreign workers. Poor living conditions, health-damaging work conditions, extortion and fear of deportation are only some of the issues they face.
There is no government support system available to the migrant workers to challenge these conditions. Private recruiters extort these workers, charging them fees of up to 14, 000 dollars, taking them years to pay off . In the film, a Jamaican worker confronts their boss regarding their health and the chemical spray used in the greenhouse. Subsequently, he is fired. This is just one of the examples in the film where the workers are vulnerable. This is a direct result of the power imbalance between the worker and the employer, leading to worker exploitation and abuse .
How did this happen?
The “Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skill shortages when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.” In short, foreign workers are taking temporary jobs that Canadians do not want to work. The TFWP originally began as the Non-Immigrant Employment Authorization Program (NIEAP) in 1973, when workers were unable to obtain permanent status. To this day, this still happens - workers are limited to working in Canada for their contract length.
They keep asking for my passport. I’m worried that once I give them my passport, they’re not going to renew my work permit and instead put me on a plane home.... What does the company want my passport for?
– Umi, one of the main subjects of Migrant Dreams
Nanik is just one of thousands that come to Canada for a better life for their children. As a first generation child, I can relate to this. My mom came to Canada looking for more opportunities and to lead a better life for her future family. After managing to find an employer in Canada, she eventually was able to obtain permanent status. Most of these low wage stream migrant workers do not share this success story. After working to put food on our tables, once their contract is over, they are forced to go back to their home country or become illegal immigrants. These foreign workers represent 20% of Canada’s workforce in the agricultural industry and after years of working here, they deserve the right to become citizens of this country .
How can we change this?
Rather than taking the route of feeling sorry for these individuals, we can empower them by allowing them access to permanent citizenship in Canada, protecting their rights as workers, and providing the migrant workers with access to information, services, and justice.
Since the release of Migrant Dreams, the House of Commons has submitted a report and listed a total of 21 recommendations to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program . According to Claudia Espinoza, an organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW), “the report provides only band-aid solutions to a critical crisis facing our communities.” 
Canadians need to be a part of the conversation with migrant workers and their lack of access to permanent residency. This Thanksgiving, we need to reconsider what our country represents when it comes to immigration and foreign workers.
1. Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) with their campaign, Harvesting for Freedom, have been traveling throughout Southwestern Ontario raising public awareness on supporting migrant workers’ status in Canada. You can sign their petition here.
1. Lee, M.S., Migrant Dreams. 2016: Canada.
2. Lee, M.S., Q&A: Director of Migrant Dreams Doc About Underbelly Of Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program, A. Brophy, Editor. 2016, Samaritan Mag.
3. Fact Sheet — Temporary Foreign Worker Program, R.a.C.C. Immigration, Editor. 2015, Government of Canada.
4. Annual Labour Market Impact Assessment statistics 2008-2015. 2008-2015, Government Canada.