Lower mainland greenhouses and farms are more and more using migrant workers to fill their labour needs. The number rose from two hundred and sixty-four in 1966 to around 25,000 as of 2009, due to a Canada/Mexico seasonal labour program. But migrant workers are reporting poor housing, unsafe working conditions and lack of medical treatment.
Safe transportation of farm workers is an issue too. In March of 2007, a van carrying seventeen farm workers flipped on the highway en route to a valley farm, killing three women and injuring ten. The van was designed to carry only ten people, but makeshift benches had been installed and not all of the workers were wearing seatbelts. There have been other accidents. Some farmers take risks because they’re under pressure to deliver cheap food to us. Cutting corners on health and safety is no way to sustain a reliable work force nor strengthen our food system.
Migrant farm workers have managed to unionize in some provinces, although not in Alberta or Ontario where it is prohibited. Just this month in Abbotsford, BC, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, Local 1518, negotiated a unique and precedent-setting collective agreement with their employer, Sidhu & Sons Nursery. The agreement is tailor made for the migrant workers, not the whole work force, granting them a grievance procedure, seniority rights, paid breaks and other basics.
There are 4,000 foreign farm workers living in the lower mainland eight months of the year. They come from Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean to help put food on our tables. And yet many are denied basic safety and health standards. The workers have almost no access to medical care. The Umbrella Multicultural Health Co-op is endeavouring to raise enough funds to convert an RV into a mobile medical clinic complete with physician and interpreter. Their project is still in the running for funding through Aviva Community Fund. You can vote for them here.