Union calls for worker and union participation in agricultural worker program

The United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW Canada) has issued a joint call with Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower house in the Mexican parliament, for reforms to the Canada-Mexico Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP).

Speaking in Mexico City, the two groups specifically called on the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to allow for worker and union participation and input at annual SAWP meetings.

“For far too long the voice of workers have been left out of the evaluation meetings that occur yearly in Mexico and Canada,” says UFCW Canada’s Pablo Godoy. “The voice of workers has to be at the core of any decisions that have to be made when we evaluate these programs. It’s about time we give a voice and space to workers that often tell us about their working and living conditions and how they aren’t able to voice their thoughts and opinions when it comes to labour rights and human rights.”

UFCW has played a leading role in the struggle for migrant workers’ rights in Canada, for over 30 years.

Currently, SAWP meetings are only open to government and industry representatives from Canada and Mexico. Workers, unions and other advocates have argued that the absence of workers’ voices from the meetings leaves the program open to abuse, exploitation and institutionalized trafficking.

The SAWP is the latest in an evolution of seasonal agricultural workers programs since the 1960s, which were created to provide low-wage manual labour to fruit and vegetable growers in Canada. Combined with the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP), it brings around 60,000 migrant workers to Canada each year. In Ontario, migrant workers make up over 40 percent of the agricultural labour force.

Canada is now the world’s fifth largest food exporter, with over $80 billion in agricultural exports annually. Migrant worker advocates note that the move towards export-oriented farming drives the industry’s demand for cheap and highly productive labour.

Under the SAWP, workers come to Canada for a maximum of eight months in a year, but their work permits are tied to a single employer. Migrant workers often work on farms for up to 17 hours a day, six or seven days a week. The work is physically demanding, and workers are generally not covered by the same minimum wage, employment standards or health and safety legislation as other workers.

Nearly 44 percent of migrant workers in Canada are from Mexico.

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