The Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Migrant Farm Workers.

AuthorCooper, John

Each year, between 50K and 60K migrant farm workers come to Canada. But are their working conditions in violation of the Charter?

"The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people." --Cesar Chavez, civil rights and farm labour activist Chavez uttered those words in 1970 in the U.S. For Canada's migrant farm workers, they may ring as true today as they did half a century ago. It's not about crops, it's about fairness. The fight for improved working conditions and better pay, safety from illness, and the right to unionize.

Between 50,000 and 60,000 people a year arrive in Canada from Mexico, the Caribbean, Thailand, Guatemala and the Philippines. It is an annual, granular exercise of sweat, toil, illness and sometimes death. They perform backbreaking work for up to nine months to get food from field to supermarket to consumers' tables. And then they return home. According to Katherine Lay of the University of Victoria's Faculty of Law, workers too often have very little job security, no access to health care, and no human rights protections.

Programs that bring migrant workers to Canada include the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP)--initiated in 1966 for workers from Mexico and the Caribbean--and several initiatives under the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. Migrant farm workers often live in crowded bunk houses with little access to amenities like showers. And the COVID pandemic made a difficult situation worse for many. While the federal government provided $150 million to employers to help manage illness due to COVID, the situation for workers did not greatly approve, according to Lay. The rights of migrant workers in Canada are limited. They contract with a specific employer and can only switch employment if their employer and home government approve. They can be fired for non-compliance and work refusals, with little avenue for appeal.

Yet according to the Government of Canada, "any person in Canada--whether they are a Canadian citizen, a permanent resident or a newcomer--has the rights and freedoms contained in the Charter." Section 15 of the Charter guarantees that "every individual in Canada--regardless of race, religion, national or ethnic origin, colour, sex, age or physical or mental disability--is to be treated with the same respect, dignity and consideration."

"In most jurisdictions... farm workers are at the bottom of the market in terms of skills and union organization," says Michael Lynk, a...

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