What follows is an open letter to members of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association.
Dear Members of the BC Fruit Growers Association,
We are writing in response to an article published in The Daily Courier on May 14, 2018 regarding a message that was sent to your membership about so-called “radical labour activists.” We are deeply concerned about the attitudes expressed in this message about rights of workers and believe this letter sows misinformation about the groups and individuals that support farmworkers.
We believe that this statement could cause significant harm to farmworkers, migrant worker support organizations, and government agencies by fostering mistrust. Whether the misinformation in this article is intentional or not, we believe it has the same result: making it more difficult for vulnerable farmworkers to assert their labour rights and the basic human rights to which all people in Canada are entitled.
The article claims that part of your message to your membership was a warning about the intentions of these ostensible activists. The statements “…we anticipate that radical labour activists will trespass and sneak onto your farm to disrupt your business” and “create problems with Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program workers on your farm” by way of “imperson[ating] government officials” appear to be without basis and misconstrue the intentions of local groups and individuals that support farmworkers.
RAMA Okanagan is a community-based, volunteer-lead group that supports migrant workers. We do this work because we see glaring gaps in the supports that workers have access to in the Okanagan, and many workers fall through the cracks. We support workers who have been denied pay, punished unfairly, suffered abuses, been injured on the job, and been deported for trying to assert the rights to which they are entitled.
The claim that migrant worker activists wish to “disrupt farm business” is not only false, it also does not make sense: it would be counterproductive to the work of RAMA and other migrant justice organizations. RAMA seeks to build relationships with farmworkers and community members, and to provide support and advocacy for them while they are working in Canada. Disrupting the operations of their workplaces just for the sake of doing so would result in disrupting the livelihoods of workers and putting their employment at risk. It would jeopardize trust between our organization and farmworkers. Our work is guided by what farmworkers want and need, and unless farmworkers inform us of gross violations and ask us to intervene in order to preserve their health and safety, there would be no reason for us to involve ourselves in farm businesses at all. If operations are following regulations, there is no cause to be worried about being disrupted. We recognize that farmworkers want these jobs. We aim to make the conditions safer and fairer.
The second false claim we would like to address is that migrant worker activists “create” problems. For the same reasons that we do not seek to disrupt farm operations needlessly, we do not invent issues for farmworkers. In fact, it is farmworkers who approach us for help and support as they are faced with health, safety, labour or human rights concerns. We have had contact with hundreds of farmworkers in the past five years, and have worked with workers to address a litany of issues including inadequate housing, unsafe working conditions, and physical and sexual abuse, to just name a few.
Because migrant workers’ status in Canada is tied to a single employer, many do not speak out because they are afraid of losing their job and being deported–a well-documented practice.
With regard to the third false claim, we would like to be clear that RAMA members have never impersonated government employees or misrepresented ourselves as government service agents in order to gain access to farmworkers. A misrepresentation like that would be counter to building relationships of trust with farmworkers and our allies in the community. None of our members have fake government ID and we have never heard of any other organization presenting fake ID. This accusation appears to be unfounded and is damaging not only to our support work, but to the work of government service employees who also are in contact with farmworkers and visit farms from time to time. Fostering mistrust among employers, farmworkers, and groups and individuals offering support and services leaves farmworkers even more vulnerable to mistreatment. It is disheartening that employers would attempt to undermine one of the few support networks available to farmworkers.
At the end of the article, BCGFA praises “a variety of local organizations try[ing] to help the Mexican farmworkers adjust during their time in Canada.” This is exactly what RAMA and other migrant justice organizations do. Employers should be pleased that there are groups like RAMA in their local communities doing support work with farmworkers. Farmworkers face a great deal of social isolation, discrimination and racist attitudes from the communities in which they live and work, and to combat this RAMA tries as much as possible to make farmworkers feel welcome and included in community. This takes pressure off employers to deal with issues that arise among their employees. It also supplements the work that consular liaisons (from Mexico and Jamaica) are meant to do, since there is roughly one consular liaison per thousand farmworkers in BC. Additionally, in the same way that we work to combat racist attitudes toward migrant farmworkers, we also combat racist attitudes against farm owners–attitudes that are not uncommon in the Okanagan.
Lastly, we would like to highlight the erroneous analogy in the article, comparing temporary foreign farmworkers to hockey all-stars. Unlike Wayne Gretzky, migrant farmworkers are made quite invisible in our communities, make minimum wage (when they are indeed paid accurately and on time) and lead quite a vulnerable existence in Canada. Despite the incredibly important work that these workers do to make our food system viable, we are not aware of any migrant worker posters or memorabilia being sold. No one asks for their autographs. To suggest that an athlete with a multi-million dollar contract has anything in common with migrant farmworkers demonstrates a tremendous misunderstanding from an employer association that wields a great deal of power over nearly ten thousand migrant workers in British Columbia.
Contrary to the opinions expressed in the article, farmworkers don’t return year after year because the living and working conditions are universally good. They return because they have few employment options at home–exacerbated by free trade accords that have overwhelmingly hurt working people in countries like Mexico and Jamaica. In some cases, workers conditions are so bad that they go home early. We just had a case with workers who cut their contracts short because of this. Open visas for farm workers and the ability to change employers would make labour violations less common, and would be an important first step in remedying the incredible power imbalance between temporary workers and employers. Status for workers upon arrival would be even more desirable.
We strongly encourage the BCFGA to reconsider their position. Instead of scaring employers and consequently employees from receiving visitors and support workers, the BCFGA should be encouraging workers to assert their fundamental rights and to develop relationships with community members. Instead, their article suggests that workers should not assert their fundamental rights or associate with members of the public. This is extremely disconcerting, and should be a serious concern to both farmers and the community at large.
Collective members of RAMA Okanagan