Exploitation of Migrant Farm Laborers

Exploitation of Migrant Farm Laborers


Institutional Affiliation


Exploitation of Migrant Farm Laborers

Technological advancements and newer farming methods in crop production have led to a rise in the quantity and quality of food produced and better agricultural practices. Crops such as soybeans and corn continue to rely heavily on newer machinery and newer production techniques (Sage, 2012). In countries such as the United States, the UK, and Canada, thousands of acres use machinery for planting, spraying, and harvesting, only employing a few people to man the machines and equipment like combines and tractors. However, some areas of agriculture still rely on manual labor, requiring that farms employ workers to help with all agricultural processes. The processing of meat and poultry, vegetables, and fruits relies primarily on human labor. In Canada, the agricultural sector relies significantly on migrant labor. A significant portion of the labor force is made up of migrant workers, a majority of whom are not documented (Landry et al., 2021). For this report, the term migrant worker will be used to mean any individual moving into the country for purposes of finding seasonal or temporary employment, with special interest in the agricultural sector in farm work. These migrant workers are accepted into various work programs as temporary helps with conditions that require them to remain employed to one employer per every season. As a result, they are exploited via poor pay, harsh work environment, dangerous conditions, and no benefits. In comparison to other types of farmworkers, migrant farm laborers, much like the slavery days, are made to work long hours with little to no pay depending on the conditions of where they are. Without a doubt, farmers who exploit migrant laborers should be ashamed of themselves, and should further face sanctions from the agricultural communities.

In the Canadian agricultural sector, about 20% of the jobs are filled by temporary migrant laborers (UFCW Canada and the Agriculture Workers Alliance (AWA), 2020). Despite holding a temporary position, migrant workers in Canada usually fill positions for extended periods and offer crucial support for the agricultural industry in Canada. According to UFCW & AWA (2020), the annual estimated number of migrant farm workers entering Canada from Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean is currently at 60,000 “low-skilled” employees. The conditions in Canada have, for a long time, meant that there is no government supervision but rather a private management program within the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and other similar initiatives. The migrant workers are usually desperate for employment, are undocumented, and have left families behind. The joblessness state in their individual nations is also a reason to why they accept the poor work conditions provided by farmers who attempt to undercut the system. Consequently, these workers are housed in substandard shelters, forced to work more hours without extra pay, are deprived of the minimum accepted pay per region, and do not even have personal breaks in between the work shifts (Caxaj, Cohen, Buffam, & Oudshoorn, 2020). Migrant workers will accept conditions and terms that the local workers will never agree to, and will then be exposed to unsafe working conditions such as exposure to dangerous chemicals, no training on how to handle equipment, lack health services, are excluded from the basic human rights laws including the Employment Standards Act and Health and Safety Legislation (Cohen & Hjalmarson, 2020). The migrant workers cannot join unions or participate in collective bargaining. In any case, they are fired or replaced en masse whenever there is an issue because of the availability of others like them ready to take on their places. Even with extensive years of operating in Canada, these workers continue to face the same issues that new workers are exposed to, including discrimination, poor pay, unsafe work environment, lack of training in handling equipment, and so on.

Canada, in one way or the other, has depended on migrant labor to build the agricultural sector (Sage, 2012). It has also done the same in other sector that support the economy. Migrant labor denotes the sector of labor held by migrant workers from various countries. The national railroad was built by Chinese migrant laborers and the fields of Western Canada were tamed by South Asian workers. As a result, Canada cannot dispense migrant workers in its domestic work, including agriculture. Despite this notable importance, the system used by farmers actively and consciously denies migrant workers the basic human rights that should not even be discussed by an ethics-driven industry. For their contribution, migrant workers barely make more than $8 an hour (Stasiulis, 2020), and do not have other benefits such as the Canada Pension Plan or the Employment Insurance benefits. The benefits are deducted from their pay despite having no entitlement to these services. The marginalized labor force of migrants should be the focus of ore studies in an attempt to understand why the system ignores these important aspect of the agricultural sector despite the meaningful contribution to the welfare of the Canadian industry.

Farmers in Canada have continued to take advantage of the weak rules in regards to the protection of migrant farmers from abuse and exploitation. For a majority of farmers, the migrant workers are required to stay silent and keep any problems they may have to themselves, or else are punished through wage reductions or firing and replacement. The fact that these migrant workers are foreigners makes it easier for local farmers to exploit them, and the government also does little to ensure that their basic human rights are guaranteed. At present, the government is a part of this problem due to its inaction and a conspicuous lack of direction on how farmers are required to treat migrant laborers. Although Perry (2012) points to the multiple pressures on the Canadian agricultural sector leading to the restructuring of the value chain, Walia (2010) refutes any claims that excuse farmers that exploit migrant laborers due to the interplay of various factors. As the Canadian agricultural sector moves more towards demanding sustainable practices, the issues relating to climate change, organic farming, and other issues continue to push farmers to cut costs at every possible point of production (Sage, 2012). Consequently, it is understandable when farmers opt to recruit migrant laborers in an effort to profit from their vulnerability. Even with this conditions pushing farmers towards cost-reduction strategies, it still does not justify the decision to exploit migrant workers on the basis of their vulnerability and for their desperation to secure any form of employment available to make a living for their families. It is as much an unethical issue as other forms of unacceptable practices, especially because of how it takes away the dignity of these migrant laborers due to the poor working conditions, poor pay, and a non-existent basic human rights provision.

Farmers are aware of the non-existent laws protecting migrant labors in the agricultural sector. Their exploitative strategies are not in any means illegal because there are no laws that demand safety, protection, or provision of basic human rights for such marginalized groups. The law excludes labor and workplace rights of migrant workers making them more vulnerable compared to the general Canadian workforce in the same sector (Weiler, 2018). The conditions are fueled by the fact that the SAWP program requires that migrant workers only work for the specific employer who took them. In this closed work system, the employee’s options are closed and lacks flexibility in decision making. Gabriel and Macdonald (2018) hold that the employer holds a lot of power compared to the employee, yet the agricultural sector would lose a lot in revenue and resources if these workers decided not to work in the present conditions. The response of the federal government in 2019 to introduce an open work permit for vulnerable laborers under the SAWP program is not enough to address the issue of exploitation. According to Perry (2018), the program is temporary and does not address the long-term demands and needs of migrant workers relating to fair labor and protection against various forms of exploitation. Despite the early failure of such programs and responses from the Canadian government, such initiatives will gradually lead to the meaningful reform of the sector, bringing in necessary reforms and much-needed changes.

From the discussion above, shaming farmers using exploitative labor is not enough to address the problem facing migrant workers. It is recommended that the SAWP program be revised to accommodate a voice from such temporary workforce due to their tremendous contribution to the growth of the Canadian agricultural sector and the economy. Federal reforms must look at how representation in a union or any other collective bargaining options can be availed to such workers. A significant portion of the vulnerability of these workers comes from the fact that they lack a collective voice to make changes in the industry. Additionally, the SAWP program should be revised to eliminate the closed approach that requires a workers to only work for only one employer. Ending employer-specific permits and replacing them with an open and more flexible system or even an occupation specific permit would enable better work conditions due to the availability of options for the worker. While it may seem unfair to the farmers, it is also important that the federal government introduces irreducible minimums as a part of the requirements for operations, requiring farmers to provide basic human rights conditions including acceptable pay, better living conditions, training when using equipment, health and safety standards, and any other basic rights of an employee. Even with these provisions, ethical practices must be a core part of every sector, especially in the agricultural sector where historical injustices embedded in slavery and other practices are likely to recur if farmers are allowed to continue exploiting laborers.


Caxaj, C. S., Cohen, A., Buffam, B., & Oudshoorn, A. (2020). Borders and boundaries in the

lives of migrant agricultural workers. Witness: The Canadian Journal of Critical Nursing Discourse,, 2(2), 92.

Cohen, A., & Hjalmarson, E. (2020). Quiet struggles: Migrant farmworkers, informal labor, and

everyday resistance in Canada. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 61(2-3), 141-158.

Gabriel, C., & Macdonald, L. (2018). After the International Organization for Migration:

Recruitment of Guatemalan temporary agricultural workers to Canada. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44(10), 1706-1724.

Landry, V., Semsar-Kazerooni, K., Tjong, J., Alj, A., Darnley, A., Lipp, R., & Guberman, G. I.

(2021). The systemized exploitation of temporary migrant agricultural workers in Canada: Exacerbation of health vulnerabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic and recommendations for the future. Journal of Migration and Health, 3, 100035.

Perry, J. A. (2012). Barely legal: racism and migrant farm labour in the context of Canadian

multiculturalism. Citizenship Studies, 16(2), 189-201.

Perry, J. A. (2018). Living at work and intra-worker sociality among migrant farm workers in

Canada. Journal of International Migration and Integration, 19(4), 1021-1036.

Sage, C. (2012). Environment and food. Routledge.

Stasiulis, D. (2020). Elimi (Nation): Canada’s “Post-Settler” Embrace of Disposable Migrant

Labour. Studies in Social Justice, 2020(14), 22-54.

UFCW Canada and the Agriculture Workers Alliance (AWA). (2020). The Status of Migrant

Farm Workers In Canada, 2020 Special Report: Marking three decades of advocacy on behalf of Canada’s most exploited workforce. UFCW Canada. https://ml.globenewswire.com/Resource/Download/709696c3-7d67-4d2d-bf71-e600701a2c8cWalia, H. (2010). Transient servitude: Migrant labour in Canada and the apartheid of

citizenship. Race & Class, 52(1), 71-84.

Weiler, A. M. (2018). A food policy for Canada, but not just for Canadians: Reaping justice for

migrant farm workers. Canadian Food Studies/La Revue canadienne des études sur l’alimentation, 5(3), 279-284.