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Essay: Canadian abuse of Jamaican migrant farm workers is an international issue, what can be done?

By SN Latiff and TJ Trowbridge

On August 11, 2022, the newspaper Jamaican Observer published a letter by Jamaican migrant farm workers living in Ontario, Canada, who are employed under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Programme (SAWP). The workers wrote that they were experiencing forms of “systemic slavery” in Canada.

Canadian flag
Photo: Unsplash

Their argument that the SAWP is systemic slavery included the following inhumane conditions: rats eating their food, not being able to dry their clothes properly, their clothes remain wet while working in the elements, the housing is dangerously overcrowded, and that they are being recorded when they are off-duty by their employers who can store and watch videos of their employees’ private lives for as long as they please. There is no public account of what the employers do with those videos. The mouldy clothes and pouring rain are very public, visible from roads, easy to smell in farm equipment co-ops, grocery stores, and restaurants.

Several news agencies have responded to the letter. Newspapers owned by the TorStar corporation, including The Hamilton Spectator and The Waterloo Region Herald published an uncompromisingly sympathetic reply titled “Stop abusing migrant farm workers.” Ali Raza of CBC News wrote a less scathing summary of the letter’s contents but focused on the Canadian government’s knowledge of the allegations and their ability to confirm them as facts. Raza also engaged Ontario provincial agencies like the Ontario Provincial Police, who have been found guilty of abusing the human rights of migrant workers under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Canada, and specifically Canadian farmers, have become an international scandal for their ongoing weaknesses in allowing the continual mistreatment of migrant workers, thanks to scathing investigative articles in outlets like those written by Julian Kestler-D’Amours, and the News Staff, at Al-Jazeera.

The Jamaican Observer followed-up the original letter with an article detailing how the Jamaican government attempted to avoid responding to the letter. Eventually, the original letter that the Observer published was taken offline. At least, the link provided by Waterloo Region Record no longer works. However, the local and international attention has moved the Jamaican government and the Canadian government to schedule meetings in Canada to consider steps toward justice.

Jamaican workers are hardly the only migrant farm labour in Ontario being abused on a daily basis. For example, a documentary film from 2003 titled El Contrato about Mexican migrant farm workers in Leamington, Ontario, shows that Mexican migrant workers suffer similar abuses by all manner of Canadians (not just farmers), and suffer similar dismissive treatment inflicted by their own government. So, the letter in The Observer is part of the accumulating evidence of systemic abuse of migrant farm workers that spans decades, townships, and farms of all sizes. This abuse implicates the entire food supply chain in Canada. Furthermore, through various international treaties and global trade in food, seeds, budwood, horticulture and agriculture, the system involved is global. The abusers who are inflicting the abuse, though, are Canadian farmers who live in the houses, seen in the windows and living in the same communities, upwind from the migrants’ temporary housing.

The SAWP abuses affect all the legal system of Ontario, since, if anything, they demonstrate that the Ontario Human Rights Code is extremely weak. The HRC does not prevent any Ontario business, nor its employees, from abusing migrant workers. This suggests that nobody is really bound by it. Everyone has the right to own business or work for a business that employs migrant workers. Therefore, everyone has a chance of working in a state of exception where the Human Rights Code is less than a mere suggestion. Basic decency or Canadian politeness can be unjustly vaporized by a work contract. (And yet, work contracts are supposed to be covered by sections 3, 5(1), and 5(2) of the Ontario Human Rights Code).

What can be done?

As Canadians, we (Latiff and Trowbridge), think that the Jamaican workers who wrote the supposedly “open” letter (now obviously “closed” behind broken online links), have no reason to trust that Canadians intend to improve anything, let alone reason to trust that Canadians plan to compensate migrant workers for their suffering. To that end, we propose the workers at Jamaican airport customs, to detain everyone with a Canadian passport, and require them to read aloud the entire original open letter to the Observer (re-open the letter in a new context if the Observer won’t do it); followed by reading aloud the Ontario Human Rights Code’s entire Part 1: Freedom of Discrimination (which is about as long as the letter). Anyone who refuses to do so should be immediately deported back to Canada, right away, without delay, and without any appeal, no matter what their supposed purpose was for entering Jamaica.

Any Canadian who refuses to read the letter and the relevant section of the HRC aloud should be prevented from doing business with Jamaica, or visiting for leisure, because at home in Canada they are not bound by law or morality to treat Jamaican people as persons. In Jamaica, they would be poison to society.

Jamaican customs can feel free to separate business partners or families at the border, since Canada permits such things in our international friendships – we have no issue continuing business or leisure with the USA, which does something much worse with some of their border crossers. Canada considers family separation to be normal and legitimate among allies and friends. Even when it comes to the USMCA and the SAWP: note that Canada is party to the USMCA while still observing the Mexican-US border situation. Jamaica can surely treat Canadians the same and Ottawa will have no complaints.

We do submit, though, that if a Canadian demonstrates that the letter and the law both deserve the dignity of being acknowledged aloud, then that could be sufficient evidence that particular Canadian passport holder can be trusted to enter Jamaica without intending to abuse anyone. After all, many Canadians are unaware of what happens in rural areas, and reading the letter, and the law, might not only educate them regarding the abuse, but also educate them about legal grounds to compel change. We Canadians can use the laws we already have, to end our status as abusers, if we so choose.

Sadly, given how many decades of abuse have occurred, we fear that seemingly cooperative Canadians might betray that trust anyhow. They could read aloud both texts, act contrite, even leave the airport seeming sincere, and yet immediately complain on social media and act abusively toward tourism workers. After all, we are guilty of being an abusive nation, and have reputations for hypocrisy where our legacy of slavery is involved. Nonetheless, we are responsible for the harms we allow to be done at home; and we must be held accountable, somehow, even when abroad. We believe that attempts at educating us about dignity and law must be made.

A less confrontational gambit might be to allow normal travelers to go uninformed. Instead, compel every staff member at the Canadian consulate in Jamaica to read the letter and the relevant section of the HRC aloud, and then provide a legally valid, plausible process to use Ontario’s human rights law to end the malicious treatment described in the letter. If any individual staff member cannot offer an explanation, they are of no use to Jamaica and clearly an embarrassment to Canada. Arrest them and deport them immediately, from interview to airplane. Their feet do not even need to touch Jamaican soil, from Canada’s consulate to Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

Therefore, we believe it is reasonable to reject and deport them. They should, of course, eventually be allowed to return to Jamaica and try to work at their intended consulate position; but obviously, they should not be allowed to try until they attend all the lectures and seminars of a graduate course about human rights (the discipline is unimportant, be it Law, Medicine, Social Science, Humanities, or Fine Arts, because solutions require intellectual agility and diverse means). Although, the hypothetical deportee might also need to take prerequisites before they upgrade their poorly anemic education.

As they should.

As Canadians must.


Journalism and Documentaries:

Kestler D’Amours, Jullian. (2022, Aug 27). Jamaican minister rejects workers’ abuse

claims on Canadian farms. Al-Jazeera. Web.

Al-Jazeera News Staff. (2022, Sept 01). Jamaica sending team to Canada to probe

work conditions on farms. Al-Jazeera. Web.

Editorial. (2022, Aug 15). 'Employers treat us like we're not human beings'. Jamaican

Observer. Web.

Lee Sook, Min. (2003). El Contrato. National Film Board of Canada.

Raza, Ali. (2022, Aug 20). Jamaican migrant workers in Ontario pen open letter likening conditions to 'systematic slavery'. CBC News. Web.

Record Editorial. (2022, Aug 30). Stop abusing migrant farm workers. Waterloo Region Record.



Ontario Human Rights Code R.S.O. 1990, CHAPTER H.19


About the Writers:

SN Latiff is of Trinidadian heritage, lives in Markham, Ontario, Canada, and is a recent graduate of Human Rights and Equity Studies (BA), at York University.

TJ Trowbridge is a plum farmer in Beamsville, Ontario, Canada. His poetry and essays have appeared in a lot of journals, zines, and chapbooks. Sometimes he is a sociolegal researcher.


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