A housing crisis in Canadian fields

By the Agricultural Workers’ Alliance – Surrey Support Centre

Alexandra from the Agricultural Workers' Alliance speaking at the Walk for Welfare about housing conditions for migrant workers
Alexandra from the Agricultural Workers’ Alliance speaking at the Walk for Welfare about housing conditions for migrant workers

The next time you visit Richmond, Surrey, Langley, the Okanagan Valley, or other places in BC, pay attention to the fields where our food is being grown and harvested. Have you ever noticed the workers toiling to put that food on our tables? Would you have guessed that they are actually temporary foreign workers, who come from Mexico, Guatemala, the Caribbean and the Philippines? They work in Canada for minimum wage, with no benefits, no overtime pay, and no recognition of their contribution to Canada’s economy.

All of this happens under the watch of the Canadian government, who launched the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program (SAWP) in 1966. This program establishes a contract with all the rules for workers and their employers to follow, but these are rarely enforced. Housing conditions can be used to measure the uncertain circumstances that these workers face every year in Canada.

Back in 2011, we travelled to a very isolated area of Langley to visit farm workers. We met 12 workers, eight Mexican and four Guatemalan, who shared a small apartment with two bedrooms, a living-room, a kitchen, and one bathroom. They each paid $575 rent for the season. One of these workers’ bed was placed right next to the apartment’s door, which was broken and impossible to lock, as were all the windows. The workers had attempted several times to get their employer to improve their housing conditions, but nothing ever changed. The language barrier made communication very difficult. The Mexican and Guatemalan Consulates did not help. They only made matters worse by telling the workers to stop complaining if they wanted to return to work next year.

Once the Mexican workers’ contract ended, they left. The house space was now enough for the four Guatemalans, but the housing conditions got worse: the sewage system broke, flooding the washroom and the kitchen next to it. Rodents started to come out through the plumbing conducts and the house started getting colder since it was already Fall and there was no way to stop the cold from leaking in through the broken windows. When Guatemalan workers went back to their home town, the small apartment was still decrepit. Most of these workers were not called back to work in Canada the next year, as their employer had reported them as being “too troublesome”.

There are over thirty thousand migrant agriculture workers in Canada every year who are without any means of protecting their right to fair housing conditions. The Consulates of the workers’ home countries have never demanded Canada to implement regulations and enforce the same standards for these workers that Canadians enjoy. Seasonal agricultural workers’ contributions to our communities are great, yet many of us prefer to not know they exist, and, more importantly, to forget that they need our support. Perhaps the next time you eat an apple or buy some tomatoes, you will keep these workers in mind.

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