'It's really successful for the workers because they like it'
There has been considerable outcry expressed by some groups when it comes to the treatment of temporary foreign workers in Canada.
And yet a report from by the government of Jamaica — based on survey results from a task force — suggests things are not as bad as they seem.
“The criticism is unfounded. The results were what we pretty much knew, that the program is a good program, there’s not many problems in it,” says Ken Forth, president of the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Service (F.A.R.M.S.) Mississauga, Ont.
“Lots of people, for whatever reason, maybe it’s just to cause chaos, say things they don’t know anything about, and then it is reported in the press.”
Agricultural workers cite ‘good’ treatment
The survey found that more than two-thirds (66.9%) of respondents felt the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) lived up to expectations and 71.8% of Jamaican workers were treated “good” or “very good” by farm employers.
When asked specifically if the farm owners treated them with respect, 87.1% said “yes”.
Overall, more than 70% of the respondents provided positive reviews of their housing and living accommodation, with 30.4% saying it was “excellent” and 40.0% describing it as “good”.
“From our own assessment, we were able to observe a deep sense of pride, and fulfilment among the vast majority of farm workers,” says the report.
The seven-person task force from Jamaica heard from 480 farm workers at 65 farms in six provinces across Canada. Workers and employers were interviewed by the team and the report was presented in the Jamaican parliament by Karl Samuda, Minister of Labour and Social Security.
Recruitment not affected by ‘slavery’ allegations
The report was initiated after an August 2022 open letter to Samuda from Syed Hussan, executive director at Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, who alleged “systematic slave-like conditions” existed on some farms.
But the report also found about two-thirds of the respondents (66.9%) said that the work was what they expected; another 14.6% said it was easier than expected, and 12.2% said it was harder than they had expected.
Despite the publicized complaints of some workers, this has had little effect on recruiting new employees, according to Forth.
“There’s a big line down [in Jamaica]. There are people who want to come and can’t because people aren’t dropping out. The only people that usually drop out are people that stay in Canada, or people that just get old and retire,” he says.
“People say: ‘Were you surprised by the results? No,’ because we’ve been driving it into our employers and other employers have been driving into everybody that this program is important to us. Let’s not mess it up.”
‘It’s been a success for everyone’
The program began in 1966, and it started out small, says Forth.
“It went from 264 guys to something like 35,000 across Canada, certainly in Ontario, over 20,000 [labourers]. It’s been a success for everyone, for the province of Ontario, a success for Canada as a whole. It’s successful for the consumers because we don’t have to buy everything offshore and it’s really successful for the workers because they like it.”
Besides the endorsement from another country, the industry has some impressive statistics, according to Forth.
“Service Canada will tell you that when they’ve done integrity audits across agriculture, they can get 99% of the growers in compliance. They may come in and say, ‘Your payroll is short by $5 for the whole year and then you just got to pay that $5 and you’re back into back into compliance.’ They find right off the bat almost 70% of the growers are perfect. They bring another 29% in real quick by just sometimes clerical, administration things that they are doing or not doing.”
“That’s not the same in other industries, and other industries outside of agriculture, they do not have that record,” he says.
And while this official report does vindicate farm employers, “everything can be improved always,” says Forth. “We do that on our farms. We try to do things better every time.”
“Happy workers work better than people that are not happy,” he says.