The Climate Crisis Is Highlighting the Mistreatment of Canada’s Migrant Workers

After a summer of disastrous forest fires, British Columbia is now experiencing extreme flooding. As well as causing untold misery for Canadian citizens, environmental catastrophe is also exposing how few protections exist for migrant workers.

In an aerial view, floodwaters surround homes and farms in Abbotsford, British Columbia. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Migrant farmworkers in British Columbia (BC) are caught in the middle of a devastating clash between a climate change–fueled flooding crisis and a highly exploitative labor system.

On the weekend of November 13, parts of southern BC saw a month’s worth of rain in less than two days. The extreme weather triggered deadly mudslides that wiped out sections of busy highways, forcing entire communities to evacuate. New flood warnings and evacuations are being ordered as the province braces for another storm this week.

The deluge created by the record rainfall washed out vital infrastructure. Flooding cut Vancouver off from the rest of Canada and submerged key roads and railway lines. Observers note that the intensity and volume of rainfall is yet another incontrovertible sign of climate change.

The rainstorms have been devastating and their effects made worse by the flood’s arrival, hard on the heels of the ruinous wildfires and heatwaves the region experienced last summer. These climate disasters have been especially disruptive to BC’s migrant agricultural workers. Lacking benefits and robbed of the one category of work to which they are entitled, migrant farm laborers are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Flooding in BC

On November 15, Byron Cruz, an activist with Sanctuary Health, started hearing from migrant farmworkers in Abbotsford. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers had ordered them to evacuate to Chilliwack, a neighboring city. Speaking to Jacobin, Cruz says that “there were a lot of issues because the employer was not around when the RCMP showed up to the houses of workers.” The language barrier between the police officers and the migrant workers also created confusion.

After coordinating with local consulate offices and employers, some of the workers were eventually able to take refuge in shelters and others were relocated to different farms. “The situation at that time for some workers was kind of scary,” says Cruz. “Some of them couldn’t get their passports on time.”

Many workers’ accommodations, and the belongings kept within them, were completely submerged by the floods. The provincial government placed approximately two hundred workers in shelters; Chilliwack’s residents opened their homes to those unable to find safe accommodation. Workers in improvised shelters relied on donations for food, in coordination with local charities and nonprofits.

Meanwhile, other workers were left on farms in locations where evacuation orders were not issued, but where the extreme weather still flooded some accommodations. This forced larger groups of workers to congregate in already overcrowded lodgings.

Dozens of workers — who typically make BC’s minimum wage of $15.20 per hour, minus deductions, or sometimes even less if they’re paid through piece rates — realized that they were not getting paid by their employer for days they worked before the floods hit, or during the work stoppage. “In some situations, they aren’t provided with any information,” says Cruz. “The employer hasn’t shown up to the shelter to let them know what is going on.”

With some farms totally underwater, computer systems used for processing payments were lost, says Cruz. Some of the workers’ contracts state they are to be paid for a minimum number of hours, but others lack even that basic guarantee.

Cruz says that the provincial Ministry of Labour has stated that employers must honor the contracts, but it’s unclear if the ministry has the intention, or even the capacity, to enforce these obligations in the near term. Many of the workers’ families rely on the paychecks, which are commonly sent back to their countries of origin.

Despite paying into employment insurance, many workers have been unable to access funds to which they should be entitled. This is one of many deeply unjust aspects of a highly exploitative system. Migrant farmworkers’ visas are typically tied to one employer, but, in ordinary circumstances, only migrants with open work permits are able to access employment insurance (EI), Cruz explains.

The Ministry of Employment and Social Development is treating applications on a case-by-case basis, says Cruz. While some employers are helping workers with closed permits to apply, many workers do not yet know whether they have worked the minimum hours needed to be eligible for the benefit. What is lacking, Cruz observes, is a system in place to support workers in the event of disasters such as the ones that are currently unfolding.

A System Designed to Protect Agricultural Capital

A majority of migrant farmworkers are employed through the Season Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). The scheme provides temporary visas to farmworkers from Mexico and Caribbean countries. Harsha Walia, a migrant justice advocate and writer, explains that the program is deeply exploitative by design:

It’s intended to be a pool of cheapened labor, who are legal but constantly deportable, who are often working for less than minimum wage, who are in incredibly dangerous work conditions, who are subjected to work exploitation, long hours, cramped conditions, wage theft, and more.

The program dates to 1966, when the federal government launched a pilot with Jamaica to allow 264 workers to come to Canada temporarily to harvest tobacco in Ontario. Its aim was to give the country’s capitalist class access to workers willing to work for minimum wage in grueling conditions.

Farm owners further benefited from the fact that many provincial labor codes explicitly excluded farmworkers from unionizing. When the Canadian government established SAWP in 1966, this provision served as a “form of protection against Communist labour incursions.”

The early days of the program highlighted a contradiction between the explicit racism of the Canadian government, and the Canadian agriculture industry’s dependence on the exploitation of black and brown workers. A 1966 memo from the assistant deputy minister of immigration stated: “One of the policy factors was a concern over the long range wisdom of a substantial increase in Negro immigration to Canada.”

In the end, the needs of capital prevailed, and today Canada’s farm owners employ between fifty thousand and sixty thousand migrant farmworkers from twelve countries each year. The recent chaos in southern BC is an instance of agricultural workers, already exploited by their employers, suffering worst from the effects of climate change created in large part by members of the same capitalist class that employs them.

According to Walia:

[The workers’] precarity is completely exacerbated in this climate emergency, because not only are they displaced, but they’re also often not able to access the same state services because of their precarious immigration status.

At the time of the floods, Walia notes, BC’s New Democratic Party government allocated resources for a military-style police invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory in the north, where indigenous land-defenders oppose the construction of a liquefied natural gas pipeline. This infrastructure will transport the fossil fuels which are driving planetary heating and the province’s extreme weather events — including the heavy rains that resulted in the recent floods.

As is well documented, the impacts of the climate crisis are disproportionately affecting the Global South. In recent years, climate change has contributed to extreme weather events in Caribbean countries that have left migrant workers stranded in Canada and in dire need of support programs that do not exist.

Compounding Crises

The recent round of flooding was only the latest climate crisis–fueled extreme weather event. Like those that came before, it made life even more difficult for BC’s migrant workers. Last summer, the province experienced a record-breaking heatwave that claimed hundreds of lives and burned an entire village to the ground.

Cruz says that of all the farms he visited during the summer, only two had any kind of cooling system. Farm owners did not bother checking on the workers to ensure they were adequately hydrated. Some workers fainted on the job.

The extreme weather events are also exacerbating existing inequalities that were already amplified by the pandemic. With fewer workers admitted into Canada due to concerns about COVID-19 last year, those who were granted entry were forced to undertake excessive workloads to prevent supply chain disruptions.

The Ontario Labour Ministry recently charged a farm where a COVID-19 outbreak infected two hundred migrant workers with twenty health and safety violations. The provincial government also ordered the farm to pay damages to a worker who was fired for speaking to the media about the overcrowded living conditions at the workplace.

Federal government assurances that worker accommodations must be “adequate, suitable and affordable” have done little to ensure safe conditions for agricultural workers, particularly during the pandemic. Farmworkers have long been forced to endure cramped living quarters, close proximity to foul-smelling septic tanks, broken electrical wiring, inaccessible heating systems, pest infestations, inadequate food-storage facilities, and a lack of access to drinking water.

Despite some brief instances of success, long-term unionization for migrant agricultural workers is practically impossible. This is largely because employers can blacklist or simply choose not to rehire pro-union workers for future seasons. Some farm owners also use divide-and-rule tactics that pit workers of different nationalities against each other.

Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers, tells Jacobin how “employers exert control over the lives of migrant workers, both here in Canada as well as in their home country.” We must, Ramsaroop adds, understand the role that migrant labor in the Global North plays in facilitating “agricultural imperial domination.” He notes that the end result of Canadian migrant labor exploitation is primarily to produce food for exports, not for local communities.

Cruz says he has met workers in their sixties who have been coming to Canada for nearly forty years on three to six month stints. They have no realistic way of applying for permanent residency. The federal government recently introduced a program promising a pathway to permanent residency for ninety thousand “essential” workers. However, the majority of those spaces were reserved for university graduates and health care workers, leaving only thirty thousand spaces for other “selected essential occupations.”

Activists note that the scheme offers little to farmworkers who are trapped in a precarious loop of leaving and returning each season. The architecture of the program makes it impossible for many to stay in the country long enough to become eligible for pathways to naturalization.

Advocates for migrant rights have long called for workers to be given permanent residency or citizenship upon arrival. “Pathways” to status are not a panacea, explains Walia. Workers need to accrue a certain number of hours to become eligible, which provides bosses with yet another tool for exploitation. According to Walia:

If a worker is just five months away from meeting their mark to become eligible for the pathway to citizenship, suddenly the demand from employers can increase because they know that the worker is just going to do everything they can to get on that pathway.

The recent struggles faced by migrant workers amid the floods received some attention in the news. Ramsaroop, however, is quick to point out that the dominant media narrative overwhelmingly focused on the hardships that farm owners faced. There has, he says, been a “total erasure of the voices of workers and working-class struggles.”

The perils faced by migrant farmworkers during the floods, says Ramsaroop, highlight the urgency with which federal and provincial governments must commit to implementing changes that address the fundamental issues facing agricultural workers. These should include granting migrant workers status on arrival, full access to EI for all workers, and immediate open work permits. Piecemeal reforms, Ramsaroop insists, will not cut it.