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Western Producer

Crisis in Alberta’s Fields: The Dark Side of Farmer’s Dependence on Migrant Labour 

Migrant workers face long hours, low wages and poor living conditions on Alberta farms

Farmers and farm workers should get the highest respect. They keep us all fed and are the heart and soul of the prairies. 

But the pressure to survive in our ever-challenging economic and physical climate is immense.

In their struggle to remain profitable, farmers often hire cheap labour. In the past, this might have been family, friends or young people, but now it is mostly foreign workers who fill this need.

But are farm family’s financial struggles leading to unfair working conditions for migrant workers?

Modern Slavery?

A recent investigation by United Nations special rapporteur Tomoya Obokata highlighted grave accusations against Canadian programs that tie foreign labourers to a specific employer, including the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program.

Obokata said these programs were a “breeding ground” for what he called modern slavery

Obokata reported speaking with migrant workers who described working excessive hours with no access to overtime pay, being denied access to health care and having to live in tiny and unsanitary conditions.

He isn’t the first to highlight these problems.

Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, told CBC that Obokata’s conclusions aren’t exactly news.

“He’s repeating, and he’s saying what we’ve been saying for a long time … migrant workers in this country are being exploited, and permanent resident status is the primary solution to ensure that they have equal rights,” Hussan said.

Unfair Enforcement?

Albertans like being number one. But sometimes, it’s not a good thing. Alberta ranks highest on the Canadian list of rule-breaking companies.. These companies have not followed the rules of the “Temporary Foreign Worker Program.”

Albertan companies are listed for offences such as having deceived workers about their job expectations and pay, not providing enough COVID safeguards, or failing to file appropriate documentation for inspectors.

Migraant farm workers weeding an organic carrot crop near Strathmore | Darwin Wiggett | oopoomoo

Bridgeview Gardens owner Mike Marusiak received one of these fines.

But he has an interesting tale of how that came to be.

He told The Progress Report it took ages to deal with bureaucratic officials just to find out what he was fined for. 

When he finally was given the reason, he disagreed that he’d treated his workers “unfairly.” 

In fact, he felt he was on the receiving end of unfair treatment.

“I’ve had a guy stay with me for 21 years. Now, if I wasn’t a good boss, he wouldn’t be here for 21 years,” said Marusiak. 

His violation stemmed from not having his temporary foreign workers quarantine at a hotel for three days immediately after arriving in Canada. 

He argues the hotel quarantine program ended in August 2021 — after he was fined. 

He was listed as ineligible to hire any more foreign workers until he paid his fine in April 2023, and he claims he’s lost “hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars, because of my workers being delayed.”

“I’ve confronted the bureaucrats, and I’ve been penalized for it financially,” he said

Marusiak’s case may be more of a broken protocol than unfair labour conditions. However, he seems to be the exception on the list, not the rule.

Residency with Rights?

Migrant advocate Hussan said the simplest way to solve unfair power dynamics that can occur with temporary foreign workers would be to start a path to a residency program for all temporary foreign workers.

“I think that if the UN rapporteur is ‘disturbed,’ it’s a message to the federal government that they’re doing something very, very wrong, and they need [do an] about-turn and ensure status for all,” he said.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller’s office has said right now, there are no new policies in the works to help temporary workers gain residency status. 

He’s instead noted other programs intended to reduce employer dependency, such as the agricultural worker pilot program.

“We cannot speculate on future policies. All new policies will be announced publicly,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Migrant worker washing and sorting potatoes at an organic farm near Strathmore | Darwin Wiggett | oopoomoo

Whether or not “slave” like conditions are rampant in Alberta is up for debate. 

However, one thing is sure.

Farmers feel the need to hire cheaper labour from outside of Canada just to compete in a market where profits are low to begin with.

Our farmers simply don’t make enough to pay their workers well or motivate Albertans to work in agriculture.

A system that relies on workers from “poorer” countries to come do our “dirty work” here is undoubtedly flawed.

So long as agriculture remains a precarious venture that frequently leaves farmers in debt, people will be forced to cut corners. 

Those with the least power will suffer because of it.

One of the things you can do to help farmers is to buy directly from farmers. Farm-to-table local buying cuts out the wholesalers, delivers fresh meat and produce at fair prices and helps farmers and their workers by keeping profits in producer’s pockets.

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