Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
November 21, 2003
Study examines social relations of migrant workers, communities
A first-ever review of Canada’s 37-year-old Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program reveals that migrant workers contribute millions of dollars annually to national and local economies, but are socially excluded from the communities in which they live and work.
The study by University of Guelph sociology professor Kerry Preibisch, presented today in Ottawa, focuses on the social relations between migrant workers and farm employers and local communities. “There has been a growing dependence on foreign workers in the Canadian agricultural sector,” Preibisch said. “But there is a paucity of studies on the social and economic changes in rural communities that have accompanied this reliance, especially from the worker’s perspective.”
Preibisch interviewed a sample group of foreign migrant workers, employers, residents and business owners in the Simcoe and Niagara regions. The study was conducted for the North-South Institute, an Ottawa-based independent research group that focuses on international development.
The findings show that geographical isolation, combined with long work hours, leaves little time for foreign workers to form relationships beyond those with employers and co-workers. “As a result, local residents, for the most part, are either unaware or choose to ignore the migrant community living in their midst,” Preibisch said.
More than 15,000 foreign migrant workers are employed in Canada every year – 85 per cent of them in Ontario – under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, which began in 1966 in partnership with the Carribean government. It was extended to Mexico in 1974.
Workers may spend up to eight months a year in Canada. On average, their salaries start at $7.20 an hour, from which they must pay taxes and employment insurance, contribute to the Canada Pension Plan, and pay for food and living expenses. “They work long hours, up to 70 to 80 hours, six to seven days a week, wanting to earn as much money as they can while they are here,” Preibisch said.
But a large percentage of those wages are staying right here, according to the research. In 2001, for example, the Canadian government collected more than $9.5 million in income taxes from foreign migrant workers and $3.4 million in employment insurance. Migrant workers also spent more than $82 million in rural Ontario communities that same year. “They take home a considerable amount of goods with them, such as small and major appliances, power tools and electronics,” Preibisch said. “But despite the significant economic contributions, as a group, they are still denied social membership in the community.”
There are many reasons for the exclusion, ranging from language barriers to physical isolation to strict rules by employers that limit their mobility. “The fact that the workers have limited social commitments in Canada is one of the reasons they are particularly valuable to employers,” she said. Efforts to integrate workers into the broader community have emerged in the last five years, mostly through the efforts of secular organizations, the study found. “But they reach only a fraction of the thousands of migrant workers coming into Canada each year and cannot be considered a long-term measure for promoting the social inclusion of migrant workers,” Preibisch said.
The study indicated that most migrant workers described their relationship with their employers as “fair to good,” although many have limited direct contact with them. Living conditions for migrant workers also varied, ranging from very clean and almost “hotel like” to overcrowded and dilapidated structures. There is an absence of regulations and enforcement for both living and working conditions, the report said. “The human experience of migrant workers in Canada is largely dependent on the subjective goodwill of employers,” Preibisch said.
The report makes a number of recommendations for the federal and provincial governments, employers and the countries supplying workers, including:
• Reviewing migrant workers’ contributions to employment insurance and pension plans.
• Mandating municipal and regional inspections of farms to ensure health and safety guidelines are being followed.
• Holding government-sponsored workshops and public forums in rural communities to promote greater awareness of the migrant community.
• Funding initiatives that address the social inclusion of migrant workers.
• Providing health and safety training, ensuring workers get at least one day of rest a week, and providing instructions in Spanish.