Challenging Canada’s Migrant Farmworker System: Lawsuit Alleges Overt Racism

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Montreal, Canada – In 1952, then-minister of immigration Walter Harris rejected the idea of tying immigrant farmworkers from Europe to their Canadian employers, stating that such measures would be contrary to Canada’s belief in individual freedom. Fifteen years later, the Canadian government began bringing in Black and Indo-Caribbean seasonal farmworkers who were tied to specific employers as part of the country’s migrant agricultural worker programs. Critics argue that this setup prevents workers from organizing, demanding better wages and conditions, and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and deportation if they speak out. A proposed class-action lawsuit against Canada’s migrant worker programs alleges that the practice of tied employment has racist origins and violates the country’s constitution.

Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) was launched in 1966 and has since been expanded to include Mexico and 10 other countries in the Caribbean. More than 70,000 temporary foreign workers now labor in Canada’s agricultural and agri-food sectors through SAWP and other agricultural programs. These workers are subject to tied employment practices that prevent them from changing jobs and isolate them from Canadian society. Critics contend that the system treats Black and brown workers differently from Canadian workers, leaving them vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse.

Foreign workers under Canada’s agricultural programs are unable to access Employment Insurance benefits despite paying into the program, which has led to a proposed class-action lawsuit seeking damages of 500 million Canadian dollars. Critics say that tied employment practices perpetuate a legacy of racism and harm to generations of workers and call for an end to these practices.

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