Monday, July 21, 2008

Farm hands deserve respect

[Article published at The Abbotsford Times.]

It's a litany that reads like a 19th century novel: field workers routinely exposed to pesticides and gases without appropriate gear or training; migrants who won't speak up about poor working and living conditions for fear of reprisals; seniors in the fields up to 20 hours a day during peak harvest with no overtime pay.

And this in British Columbia, where farm gate sales ring in at more than $2.5 billion annually, with a big chunk of that generated in the Fraser Valley.
The study released Wednesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is shocking.

It should have us hanging our heads in shame.

The story it tells suggests that we treat our farm workers like indentured servants at worst, as second-class citizens at best.

But this should come as no surprise. For years, farmworkers and their advocates have told us about tough and deteriorating conditions on the farm.

Not all farm operators treat their workers badly, and we recognize that.

However, while farm and migrant workers continue to work under unsafe and degrading conditions, the checks that could be protecting them have eroded.

The CCPA authors note that since 2001, farm inspection reports by WorkSafe BC dropped 62 per cent, prevention orders were down 73 per cent; safety standards are routinely ignored and immigrant workers are regularly transported by farm labour contractors in unsafe vans.

We're familiar with the tragic results of this kind of disregard: the horrific crash in March 2007 killed three local women and injured 14 others. The obvious changes that need to be made include reinstating regulations to protect this group and to give agencies real power to enforce the rules. We need to educate the farm operators, the workers and the public.

The irony is that the Fraser Valley's economy depends heavily on the labour and sweat of the 'lowly' farmhand. The workers are literally the backbone of an agricultural sector that provide us with some of the best and safest foods in the world.

It seems prudent then that we treat them with a little more respect and care.

Protect farm labourers: report
Study blasts conditions endured by workers

[Article published at The Abbotsford Times.]

Marcia Downham, The Times; with files from The Vancouver Sun

Seasonal farmworkers in B.C. are treated unfairly and are poorly protected compared to other workers in the province, according to a study released Wednesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The study, focusing on immigrants and temporary migrants in the Fraser Valley, revealed workers have to regularly deal with poor and sometimes dangerous working conditions, industry-wide violations of employment standards, of health and safety regulations, and a lack of enforcement by government agencies.

"They are extremely hard workers and cherished by farmers, yet they face lower standards of working conditions. There are regulations in place, but there is hardly any monitoring or enforcement of those regulations," said Gerardo Otero, a co-author of the report and professor of sociology with Simon Fraser University.
Farmers rely largely on immigrants from the Punjab, and today about 90 per cent of farmworkers in the valley are Indo-Canadian.

In B.C., the number of migrant Mexican workers has grown from 50 in 2004 to about 2,200 in 2007. To cope with a 'continuing shortage' of labour, B.C. berry growers are expecting to hire around 3,000 temporary foreign workers in 2008 - 40 per cent more than in 2007, said the study.

Otero and the study's other authors recommend policy changes be implemented within municipal, provincial, federal and Mexican governments to ensure B.C.'s agricultural workers are protected.

"We want their economic security enhanced and have the bar raised to the level of other workers in B.C.," said Otero, who has also done extensive research in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

"I know there is a big push by the Canadian government right now [for foreign workers] to address the labour shortage, and it is a program that can work if it is effectively managed," said Manpreet Grewal, manager of multicultural and immigrant services with Abbotsford Community Services.

Many workers do become permanent residents and become a large part of our society, said Grewal.

"I totally support any kind of effort to study and to ensure things run the way they are laid out to be," she said.

"These farmworkers need this and this type of study is a step in the right direction. It is important that we should all be treated equal as Canadian workers - hopefully farmworkers will have a strong voice sooner than later," said Ravi Dhindsa, full-time co-ordinator with the Abbotsford Agricultural Workers Alliance Support Centre.

Some of the study's key findings were that farmworkers lack secure income and generally earn an average of $8 per hour with no overtime pay; workers are extremely concerned about their safety and living conditions; they are routinely exposed to pesticides, gases and other chemicals without appropriate gear or training; health and safety standards are routinely violated; since 2001, inspection reports by WorkSafe BC in the agricultural sector dropped by 62 per cent, prevention orders went down by 73 per cent and not one participant interviewed reported being visited by WorkSafe BC; workers fear they will lose their jobs if they complain and immigrant farmworkers are regularly transported by farm labour contractors in vans that violate safety regulations.

B.C. Minister of Labour Olga Ilich finds violations for these workers disturbing, but said she's unsure of the study's accuracy, according to The Vancouver Sun.

She said the ministry is increasing inspections of farms and worker transportation vehicles.

Roberta Ellis, vice-president of WorkSafe BC, also told the Sun the report did not use WorkSafe BC's 2007 inspection report.

The report, part of the Economic Security Project, was done by the CCPA and SFU. It was co-published by Justicia for Migrant Workers, Progressive Intercultural Community Services and the B.C. Federation of Labour. The full report can be found at