Editorial | What of the farmwork review?
Over the five months between April and August, foreigners working on Canadian farms under that country’s seasonal employment programme filed more than 2,000 complaints with Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), the government agency that oversees the scheme. In response to questions by this newspaper, the ESDC didn’t specify how many complaints there were beyond 2,000, and declined to give the nationalities of the complainants, claiming, somehow, that would breach people’s privacy.
The agency, however, confirmed that more than four of 10 (43 per cent) of the complaints led to investigations and action being taken, presumably against employers. That means that in at least 860 of the complaints, the Canadian authorities felt there was sufficient merit to initiate investigations. That, in the context of these matters, is a significant ratio.
So we don’t know if Jamaicans were among the complainants, including the successful petitioners. Nonetheless, it isn’t unreasonable to speculate that they were. After all, Jamaicans account for approximately a quarter – 8,345 of 33,945 – of all the foreign farmworkers let into Canada between January and July of this year, and represent 89 per cent of the contingent from the Caribbean. On that basis, and assuming that Jamaicans were represented among their complainants in proportion to their participation in the scheme, at least 500 of the complaints might have come from Jamaicans.
The ESDC’s information is a reminder of the promise by Jamaican and Canadian authorities to conduct a review of the scheme and this newspaper’s call for it to be done with transparency. There has been no public follow-up on that undertaking since Labour Minister Karl Samuda’s acquiescence in early September to public pressure that the concerns of the workers be taken seriously and his announcement of a joint Jamaican-Canadian review.
In retrospect, it would be logical Jamaica involve its Caribbean Community (CARICOM) partners that also send farmworkers to Canada and therefore have interest in the matter. Moreover, there is insulation in numbers. It might encourage the parties’ greater frankness in the discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of the programme.
This newspaper does not discount the value of the farmwork and other seasonal employment schemes to Jamaica, and neither should the Canadian downplay its worth to them. Indeed, the arrangement allows the Canadians to temporarily import workers to do often tedious, backbreaking jobs, for which it is difficult to recruit Canadians at the wages on offer.
The availability of these foreign workers, to whom the Canadian economy owes no long-term obligation, helps Canada to maintain its place as one of the world’s leading agricultural producers and its ability to ensure food security. Moreover, foreign workers contribute to keeping Canadian farms profitable.
Indeed, net realised income of Canadian farms, according to the country’s data reporting agency, Statistics Canada, jumped 46.4 per cent in 2021, to C$13.5 billion, following a hike of 79 per cent the previous year. The spirals of the past two years were fuelled by the global rise in food prices. But even before then, net farm incomes were in the black and enjoyed decent, if moderate, growth. Seasonal jobs on Canadian and US farms have, over several decades, also helped many Jamaicans to improve their living standards. They have been able to build homes and support families, including paying for decent education for their children. Sometimes, they are even able to save.
FAIRNESS AND GENUINE RESPECT
Which is why it is in all parties’ interest that it should work well, with fairness and genuine respect for the rights of workers. Some who are involved say that is not always the case and that infringement of workers’ rights is not infrequent – and often arbitrary.
In August a group of Jamaican farmworkers wrote anonymously to Mr Samuda laying their complaints. “We are treated like mules and punished for not working fast enough,” the letter said. “We are exposed to dangerous pesticides without proper protection, and our bosses are verbally abusive, swearing at us. They physically intimidate us, destroy our personal property and threaten to send us home.”
The minister’s default was to reject the allegations. He offered as evidence against the complainants his own recent whirlwind visit of a handful of farms, where he witnessed excellent conditions and harmonious relations – as if he would be shown anything else. He argued that they wouldn’t return if the work environment was bad. But employees endure poor working conditions because they need the incomes that come with their jobs.
An even more strident response to the complaints came from Kenneth Phillips, Jamaica’s chief liaison officer in Canada for the farmworkers scheme, whose primary responsibility is protecting the welfare of the workers. He described the complainants as misguided publicity seekers. That stance clearly made Mr Phillips ineligible as a member of a review body. He runs the risk of being accused of coming to the exercise with predetermined outcomes.
Mr Samuda, and the Canadians, if indeed they are part of a review that is intended to be more than cursory look at, and revalidation of, how the scheme operates, should disclose the names of the review panel and their terms of reference. Indeed, its membership as its terms of reference might have to be adjusted to accommodate a wider CARICOM involvement.
Separately, Jamaica should evaluate its liaison office in Canada to ensure that it doesn’t lose sight of who are its constituents and its obligation to them – a problem that is not uncommon for institutions and officials when they are based abroad and sometimes becomes enveloped into the host community.