Indentureship in the 21st century

According to press reports last week, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board Appeals Tribunal found that the WISB, by cutting off an injured seasonal agricultural worker’s loss-of-earnings entitlement, had denied him the very benefits that it was supposed to provide.

Those same media reports also highlighted the appalling fact that it took nine years for Michael Campbell, the Jamaican worker involved, to get justice.

It is time to put a stop to the policies and laws in Canada that allow for the continued exploitation of seasonal agricultural workers.

By their failure to take the relevant legislative and policy measures to correct this situation, our federal and provincial lawmakers are guilty of criminal negligence.

These two levels of parliamentary representatives need to be reminded that the relevant provisions of our country’s Criminal Code set out a clear definition of this legal concept:

“Criminal negligence

  • 219(1) Every one is criminally negligent who
    • (a)in doing anything, or
    • (b)in omitting to do anything that it is his duty to do,

shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons.”

(R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46) 

Briefly put, the seasonal agricultural workers (mainly from Mexico and the English-speaking Caribbean) are systematically denied equitable treatment in the areas of labour rights, health care, housing and the eligibility to apply for permanent residence.

That abusive state of affairs is being allowed to persist in spite of years of advocacy and protest. In an earlier Editorial, this newspaper made the following comments:

“Does the government remember that the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are intended to be the very foundation for the success of our country’s economy?

“In that regard, it bears repeating that, according to the spirit and letter of the Charter, economic growth is meaningless if it is not accompanied by equitably shared economic growth and by equitably shared labour rights.

“It is precisely because we believe that justice, equity and democracy taken together are irreplaceable features of our Canadian values that we applaud the many efforts to have the farm workers’ concerns addressed.”

While the tireless advocacy by groups such as Justicia for Migrant Workers is worthy of praise, one wonders what more can be done to bring an end to the situation.

Why should there be one set of conditions and policies for workers who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents and another, lesser, second-class set of conditions and policies for agricultural farm workers?

The detailed answer to that question is embarrassingly easy: on the one hand, these workers have no political or electoral clout, so the two levels of politicians have nothing to lose by continuing to neglect the problems; on the other hand, such differentiated, inferior, treatment has its roots in colonialism, racism and exploitative capitalism.

So that no one should be surprised that in the communities with significant numbers of seasonal agricultural workers, there are two separate and contrasting realities.

– the “imported” farm workers who are temporary and remain so for 10, 15, 20 years or more of annual, fixed-term contracts, with no hope of promotion contrast with the local workers who can have full access to the management, sale and procurement jobs

– the rooming house type of housing for the imported workers contrasts with the better quality and better location housing accommodation occupied by the locals

– the life of  isolation from their spouse, children and extended families lived by the foreign farm workers contrasts with the socially and culturally hospitable lives lived by the locals

– the environment of socio-cultural stereotyping and racial discrimination experienced by the foreign worker contrasts with the more “socially and culturally integrated” life-style of the locals

Again, one wonders how a society can learn to tolerate and accept as normal a significant number of practices that should strike one and all as blatant examples of inequity and unfairness.

There is a useful lesson here for those persons who have some understanding of the history of slavery in the Caribbean: the abolition of the slave trade in the nineteenth century created a dire need for new sources of labour at “economically competitive rates” to keep the agricultural sector operational.

The stark reality is that now in the twenty-first century we in Canada are still using a system of indentureship, in which agricultural labour is being imported on a temporary, fixed-term basis, every single year.

Are we prepared to continue to tolerate this situation?