Migrant workers should be able to immigrate to Canada rather than just come as short-term labour, advocates for the workers say. CNS photo/Karen Callaway

Well-intentioned bills on migrant workers don’t go far enough

By 
  • May 1, 2014

Two bills under consideration in Ontario that seek to expand protection for migrant workers are “doomed” because they don’t address the real thing these workers need, a means of staying here, says Stan Raper.

“If you are good enough to work here you should be good enough to stay here and bring your family here,” said the national co-ordinator of the Agricultural Workers Alliance. “Our immigration system has broken down to the point where we now are asking employers to identify people that might be good enough to live here if they know how to do a certain job.”

About 25,000 migrant workers come to Canada each year with more than half finding jobs in Ontario alone, according to research from the University of Guelph. Many are from Mexico, Honduras and other Central American nations and work on farms.

Raper does acknowledge the issues Bill 146, introduced in 2013, and Bill 165, introduced in 2014, are attempting to address as necessary but not sufficient.

Bill 146 seeks to ensure temporary workers are paid for working overtime and compensated, primarily through insurance, for on-the-job injuries. Bill 165 wants workers, who are typically paid the $10.25 minimum wage in Ontario, to receive a $14 an hour starting rate.

“Ontario is introducing legislation to provide more protection to the province’s vulnerable work force while increasing fairness for both employees and businesses,” said the Ministry of Labour. “Strengthening protections for vulnerable workers is part of the Ontario government’s plan to invest in people, build modern infrastructure and support a dynamic and innovative business climate.”

Kevin Flynn, who was sworn in as the province’s Minister of Labour in March, said he’ll continue with the “commitment to building a system that is fair for workers, makes sure they are protected and helps create more opportunities for all.”

Both bills are awaiting second reading.

But the legislation will not repair what truly needs to be fixed, a broken immigration system, said Raper.

“Canada was built on immigration,” he said. “We need to get back to proper immigration programs with some dignity and respect. Allowing employers to take control of our immigration system is wrong and picking and choosing individuals because of a particular skill or a notion that a job there is open for a certain period of time.”

Marie Carter, the Diocese of London’s Migrant Workers Ministry specialist, agrees with Raper that developing a reliable path of immigration for migrant workers is the solution.

“Until they are allowed the right to immigrate and to bring their families, how can they fully integrate into the community? We need these individuals in rural areas to keep our communities,” she said. “We need them for labour and it is really unjust if we invite people in and only see them as labourers; they are people.”

Carter believes most Canadians feel this way.

“I don’t think most Canadians would disagree that if people are here to contribute to society and work that they should be Canadians.”

Tony Hogervorst employs 16 migrant workers annually on his family vegetable farm, Berryhill Farm, in Watford, Ont. He doesn’t agree with this argument.

“They come here and they earn for argument sake $11 an hour and they can’t find that in a day at home,” said Hogervorst, who is studying to become a deacon at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont. “It is important to their villages that they take this money home. If we allow these people to immigrate, and I’m not saying that I don’t want them here, that is not the point, but if they were to immigrate the money that they are earning could do nothing for their people at home.”

Unlike many who employ foreign labour, Hogervorst does not use recruiters to scout out his next crop of workers. He’s had mostly the same workers for more than a decade, with his lead hand making his 22nd consecutive appearance on the farm this year. If the workers didn’t like coming to his farm then they wouldn’t, said Hogervorst. “It is as simple as that.”

Hogervorst realizes it is “heavy work at a low price,” and said he’d like to be able to pay those making the trek north more money. But agricultural economics won’t allow for that.

“I would be glad to pay $20 an hour if I could claim it back on my product, but that situation doesn’t exist,” he said. “I do not disrespect that they think that it is a low wage but it is what I offer and it is what I am able to offer. Often, too often, we are left in the position of receiving price for our product that doesn’t cover the costs of production.”

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