Every year, some 18,000 Mexican and Caribbean farm workers come to toil on Canadian farms through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program, a guest worker program that has been in existence since 1966. The farm workers remain in Canada for up to 10 months a year. Some of the participants have been coming to Canada for nearly 30 years, spending most of their working lives in a country where they will never be able to live permanently.
Under the terms of the SAW program, preference is given to married men to ensure that they return home. This policy is part of a lineage that follows a direct line from Canada’s decision to bar Chinese men who built the Canadian National Railway from bringing their wives and children to this country. This resulted in a generation of lonely men and broken families.
In putting food on our collective table, the farm workers provide a vital service, arguably as important as building the railroad that united Canada. Yet they are denied the basic right to love and companionship.
The Canadian Labour Congress has reported that migrant workers suffer from loneliness and that they have high rates of alcoholism and sexually transmitted diseases. In the case of the Mexican workers, the isolation is made worse by language barriers.
By separating the workers from their families, the SAW program is cruel. By giving preference to married men, it is downright racist.
The rationale given is that married men are more likely to return home when their contracts come to an end.
The unspoken corollary is that unattached farm workers might marry Canadian women, remain here and spawn offspring.
Why is Canada so afraid the predominantly indigenous and black farm workers will reproduce?
The forced separation of men from their families also has public health implications. The spread of AIDS in South Africa was made worse by the use of migrant workers in mines. Separated from their wives, the miners turned to prostitutes to fulfil their desires.
Canada could argue that the selection of participants is made by the “sending” country, and that the decision to separate families is made in Mexico. But the terms of the program were jointly negotiated by both countries.
Given the economic disparity between Canada and Mexico, the latter is bound to accept terms that are not favourable to its own workers in order to ensure a steady flow of hard currency back home. Canada should use its influence to ensure that Mexico adopts practices that are not harmful to families.
Mexico considers the SAW program to be a “model” of managed migration. Mexican President Vicente Fox has repeatedly urged the U.S. to adopt a similar program. And guest worker programs are certainly better than the alternative of sneaking across the border and working illegally.
But the existence of a worse practice in the U.S. does not justify the continuation of a bad one in Canada.
Given the severe labour shortage that exists on Canadian farms, why does Canada not allow migrant farm workers to remain permanently? Is it because Canada knows that farm workers, if given the choice, will scorn agricultural labour for jobs that are less backbreaking and dangerous?
Participants in the SAW program are therefore given the option of working on a farm, or going home. In order to keep Canadians fed, Ottawa has placed an entire category of workers in what amounts to indentured servitude.
The solution is simple: pay farm workers more and treat them better, so they are less likely to seek greener pastures.
The forced separation of migrant workers from their families is as racist as it is cruel. It was wrong during the building of the railroad, and it is wrong now. Canada should allow migrant farm workers to bring their families, and it should allow both workers and families to stay.
Maria Amuchastegui is a Latin American community activist.