He's worked legally in Canada for 37 years — but he's still considered ‘temporary’
Low-wage migrant farmworkers are a crucial and growing part of Canada’s economy. Yet in most cases it’s impossible for them to get permanents status, which experts say leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.
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Canada is Patrick Stanio’s second home, where he is good enough to work but not good enough to stay.
After returning for 37 years to do back-bending work on three different farms in Ontario — spending half his life away from his family in St. Lucia — the 66-year-old migrant worker is anxious about his future. Eventually he’ll become too frail to do the work and too slow for his employer.
Despite his long history here and devotion to his job, Stanio has always been just a guest in Canada. As a low-wage labourer, despite his skills being in demand, he hasn’t been able to qualify for immigration.
“I used to carry my children’s photos with me to Canada because I wasn’t really there when they were growing up. Now I’m carrying my (five) grandchildren’s photos,” said Stanio, sitting on a worn bench at the back of an old bunkhouse he shares with five Jamaican workers on a farm on the shores of Lake Erie.
“Many of us come back year after year to work on farms. It’s nothing temporary. Canadians just want us to do the jobs they won’t.”
While supporters of Canada’s migrant farmworker program tout it as a win-win for migrant workers and the country’s agricultural sector, critics say workers like Stanio are the ones who pay the price for the cheap food on our dining tables.
The share of migrant workers in Canada’s agricultural workforce has doubled in the last decade as what was once seasonal need for harvesters has turned into a year-round labour market reality.
The workers pay income tax and employment insurance, and contribute to the Canada Pension Plan. However, their precarious status in Canada makes it difficult for them to exercise their rights and protections under labour laws, making them easy prey for unscrupulous recruiters and bad employers.
Numerous research studies have found the current programs for low-skilled migrant workers leave them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Unlike their counterparts with higher education and professional designations, who can work for any employer and have multiple programs to apply for permanent residency, farm workers are tied to a single employer. In most parts of the country, they have no chance to become permanent residents unless they marry a Canadian.
Some advocates say the solution is granting migrant farm workers permanent residence upon arrival, which would eliminate the leverage employers have over workers with tenuous status. At the very least, they say, Canada should change the rules that prevent workers from being able change employers.
In light of the federal government’s inaction, some provinces have taken steps to use their own immigration powers to give low- and semi-skilled migrant workers including farm workers access to permanent residency.
The Ontario government announced a new program this summer to allow currently employed migrant workers in construction and agriculture to apply for permanent resident status with lower language and education requirements.
The province said it has not decided how many spots will be allocated for farmworkers, but given the small annual quota (6,000 for temporary foreign workers in all industries) at most a small fraction of the estimated 22,000-plus migrant farmworkers in the province stand a chance at being accepted.
“Granting permanent residency to these migrant workers should be a priority. Right now, they have no ability to do that. We need to give them choices,” said University of Windsor law professor Vasanthi Venkatesh, who specializes in social movement as well as labour and human rights.
“The workers are no longer invisible. It’s an embarrassment and Canada needs to do something.”
Agri-food is a $108 billion business in Canada, accounting for more than 6 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. It is one of the top priorities of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s innovation economy.
In the latest NAFTA negotiations, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAuley said the government is committed to boosting food exports over the next few years.
While Canada’s agricultural sector has evolved rapidly — with the increased use of technology and growing farm operations and revenue — little has changed for its Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), which was launched in 1966 as a stopgap initiative to fill labour shortages. The program allows participants from 11 Caribbean countries and Mexico to work here for up to eight months a year.
Today, temporary migrant farmworkers make up more than 1 in 10 workers in Canada’s agricultural workforce compared with 1 in 20 a decade ago, according to a Conference Board of Canada study last year.
As demands for workers grow, Ottawa not only has expanded the program but added agricultural, low-wage and high-wage streams to its temporary migrant worker program to ensure a year-round supply of various types of agriculture workers.
Even so, the booming agricultural industry is faced with labour shortages.
The conference board said job vacancies in the sector have doubled over the past decade and are expected to double again by 2025, leaving farm operators 113,800 workers short.
Unlike his Canadian counterparts who have their home and families to go back to each night, Patrick Stanio said migrant workers like him — predominantly men — can only return to their bunks where they share every aspect of their lives, with little privacy.
Sometimes, workers have to get up very early so they can avoid the lineup to shower or take turns using the stove to cook. In cramped spaces, tempers can flare. At some farms, workers have curfews and are at the mercy of their employers to take them shopping and to see the doctor because there is no public transit.
Stanio, who has never been to school, said he was unemployed, tending his own family farm growing bananas and yams in St. Lucia before he enrolled in the seasonal agricultural worker program in 1980.
“Things are very hard in my country. There are no jobs and I have a lot of people to support,” said Stanio, whose two adult sons have been trying unsuccessfully to get into the program and join him in Canada.
He earns about minimum wage on 45 hours of work each week on a tobacco farm; he usually arrives in Canada in May.
Although the money he makes has allowed him to build a new home in his village, Stanio said he has paid by being kept away from his family and missing the growing up of his two sons, now 35 and 32, and 29-year-old daughter.
While Stanio is proud to have put his children through school, his yearly ritual of working in Canada has not lifted his family out of poverty.
Still he counts himself as lucky because he has been healthy and only got injured once more than 10 years ago when he slipped while working and had to stay in the Brantford hospital for two weeks.
“The farm owner didn’t send me home (to St. Lucia) and let me go back to work,” remembered the six-foot-five and slender Stanio, whose callous hands are scarred with years of tending tobacco plants.
Stanio is one of roughly 54,000 migrant farm workers who came to Canada last year and among the 74 per cent arriving under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.
Some 24 per cent of the workers came through the agricultural stream of the temporary foreign worker program for workers for crops on a government-stipulated list of farm products. The rest were brought in under the low-wage and high-wage categories for production outside that list.
The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, a not-for-profit group, estimates it costs $12,000 more to hire a migrant worker over a two-year span than hiring a Canadian when factoring in advertising, airfare, administration, rent subsidy and other work compensation contributions.
During the oilsands boom in Alberta, employers such as Tim Hortons increased pay to attract Canadian workers to remote places such as Fort McMurray. However, the labour cost was ultimately transferred to consumers who paid more for the same cup of coffee and muffins elsewhere.
“We have very little control over global prices. You need to keep your costs and prices in check or people would buy their corn from Mexico and the United States,” said Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, a beef cattle farm owner from Bruce Mines, 60 km east of Sault Ste. Marie.
“We can’t go out and pay as much wages as possible. We need to stay competitive in the marketplace.”
Toronto economist Armine Yalnizyan said the temporary foreign worker program benefits Canadian employers and consumers because it depresses food prices.
“It normalizes bad workplaces and working conditions because it is difficult to enforce the workers’ legal rights. Whether it is a win-win depends on who you are talking to. Who would want to do the work at those wage ranges?” asked Yalnizyan.
While managers in agriculture can earn anywhere between $19.2 and $21.05 an hour, general farmworkers are paid between $15.65 and $18.25, with seasonal harvesting labourers typically making somewhere between $13.25 and $16.80, according to Statistics Canada.
“It is true Canadian employers can’t find Canadian workers willing to do the job, but how much are you willing to pay people? The flip side of the low grocery prices is the low wages for someone somewhere else.”
Jennifer Pfenning of Pfenning’s Organic Farm in New Hamburg, near Kitchener, said the problem with the migrant farmworker programs is Ottawa offers no pathway to residency and citizenship for the migrants, turning the programs into a revolving door rather than offering a sustainable workforce that employers prefer.
“Migrant workers are not cheap labour, but they are effective labour. The biggest underlying reason that many farmers do not want workers to have status on arrival is fear. They are afraid . . . they will have put in a lot of work and expense to get the person here and then have no guarantee that the worker will stay,” said Pfenning.
“While this fear is not completely baseless, it is a risk we should be willing to take in order to ensure that we have a just and fair society.”
A report by Statistics Canada this year found the rate of transition to permanent residence for seasonal agricultural workers was at a dismal 3 per cent compared to the average 21 per cent conversion rate among temporary foreign workers overall.
Federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said Canada’s economic immigration programs feature objective criteria — skills, language ability, education and work experience — to select candidates most likely to integrate successfully.
“There is no evidence to indicate that migrant farmworkers would continue working for agricultural employers if they became permanent residents upon arriving in Canada, or meet the level of skills, language ability, education or work experience that are known to be key to a newcomer’s success in Canada,” Hussen said in an email to the Star.
University of Windsor’s Venkatesh pointed out that the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program was meant to be a temporary initiative when it was launched five decades ago.
“In the 1960s, Canadians were against the importation of labour. That’s why Canada had focused on the permanent residence,” said Venkatesh.
“People thought (the seasonal agricultural program) was not going to last and it was just a stopgap measure because we were an immigrant country and not a labour importation country.”
While employers use the sector’s seasonality to justify using migrants for temporary jobs, Venkatesh said the workers pay a huge social cost in the form of family separation and relationship breakups. The program has done little to address the perpetual poverty in the migrants’ home countries, which simply rely on remittances from the workers, she added.
A recent report by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture estimated each Mexican worker in the seasonal agricultural program sent home on average $9,879.32, which represented 76.8 per cent of their income during their employment in Canada.
Because the workers are tied to a single employer during their time in Canada, that can leave them vulnerable in cases of workplace disputes and unwilling or unable to exercise their rights.
To better protect the workers, said Venkatesh, Canada should issue what’s called “open worker permits” that allow them to work for any farm “to balance the uneven power” between workers and employers.
“It’s a question of control by employers on how workers have to work,” she said. “Like someone brought in by Google and moved to work for IBM, it’s still going to benefit the whole sector in the country because of the skills the person brings in.”
Hussen, the immigration minister, said he has concerns about eliminating the employer-specific work permit because the temporary foreign worker program is built on the labour market impact assessment system that requires employers to demonstrate a labour shortage.
“The bulk of the government’s worker protection activities are employer-based. Inspection powers for the foreign worker program are linked to the employer who applied for the labour market impact assessment . . . to the offer of employment submitted by the employer to the Immigration Department,” he said.
“If the work permit is not linked to the employer through the labour market assessment or employment offer, the government could lose its ability to hold employers accountable for non-compliance.”
Anelyse Weiler, a University of Toronto PhD student specializing in labour migration and sustainable food systems, said granting status to migrant farmworkers upon arrival is the only way to liberate a “captive labour force that is readily exploitable by design.”
“When low-wage migrant workers are given the dangling carrot of a pathway to permanent residency, they are vulnerable to highly exploitative employment arrangements during the limbo period before they potentially become permanent residents,” said Weiler, a co-author of a paper — titled Food Security at Whose Expense? — published in the International Migration Journal in August.
“One of the drawbacks of open work permits alone would be that if workers are still deportable and lack a fair appeal process prior to a repatriation order, then they might face similar challenges as today.”
The argument that the migrant worker programs are a win-win for Canada and the workers ignores the lopsided imbalance of power, she said.
“These programs function by taking advantage of racialized global inequality. It’s hard to square the win-win logic with years of research documenting systemic problems of substandard housing, inadequate access to washrooms and unscrupulous job recruiters who charge exorbitant fees,” Weiler noted.
The Conference Board of Canada’s Burt said migrant farmworker programs are not long-term solutions to the sector’s continuous labour crunch.
Over the long run, Burt said farm operators and governments must change Canadians’ attitude toward the sector and tap into the newcomer pool to address the labour shortage. For instance in Windsor, Highline Mushrooms Farms has recruited workers with agricultural experience from the local refugee community.
“We really need to revisit the assumptions in our immigration system. If people are doing work that is viable to the society, we need to give them better access to permanent status in Canada,” said Burt.
“As a society, we need to make sure anybody coming into the country is treated well when they are here and are not taken advantage of. We must seriously look at what role permanent immigration can play in filling the labour gap in the sector.”
Schuyler, of Schuyler Farms, said he could see some merit to the open work permits, but has reservations about how it could work, particularly for the seasonal workers who are here for up to eight months only while employers must pay part of their airfare and housing.
“My personal view is that someone who has successfully worked on the temporary foreign worker program should be given a leg up when applying for residency as they have already proven that they can positively contribute to Canadian society,” said Schuyler.
“On the benefits of having workers as permanent residents, there are too many variables to give a fully educated comment. However, anything to streamline and simplify the process and associated paperwork would greatly improve things.”
Back in Simcoe, Stanio, the St. Lucian migrant worker, said he hopes to stay strong and healthy, and continue to return to Canada till the day he’s too old to work because he would not be able to get by on the $160 monthly pension he said he is expected to receive from Canada.
“I have spent so much time in Canada that I feel at home in this country. I do feel lonely and bored by myself with the other guys here,” said Stanio. “I can’t say I know Canada or I belong here because I only live and work on the farm.”
Canada’s migrant farmworker programs
Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP):
Workers from Mexico and 11 Caribbean countries can stay in Canada for up to 8 months each year but must leave the country by December 15. Their jobs must be in primary agriculture involving products on the National Commodities List, a group of items designated by Ottawa ranging from fruits to dairy to sod. Employers must provide round-trip airfare and free housing.
Essentially works like the SAWP, but workers can be from any country and work year-round for up to two years. Employers must provide round-trip airfare and, except in B.C., free housing.
Similar to the other two programs, but not restricted to products on the National Commodities List. Employers must provide round-trip airfare and arrange affordable housing.
Similar to the low-wage program but for higher-skilled agricultural positions. There is no requirement to provide housing and no restriction on how long the workers can stay.
Source: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada