Bunkhouses ridden with bedbugs and rats.
Bathrooms leaking fecal matter.
Broken promises, bribes and sometimes beatings.
These are among the thousands of concerns raised by Mexican migrants working on Canadian farms under conditions marked by health risks, extreme isolation and even violence — despite participating in a federally regulated program meant to guarantee basic protections.
The complaints reveal for the first time a record of living and working conditions made by seasonal agricultural workers, in their own words, to Mexican Ministry of Labour officials at the end of every growing season in Canada. The Star has obtained 3,100 such grievances made since 2009, which describe not just extreme cases of abuse, but serious inadequacies in protecting those experiencing it.
The Mexican authorities do not share the vast majority of these complaints with the Canadian government.
“The stories that we’ve been hearing literally for decades occur again and again and again,” said Fay Faraday, a human rights lawyer and assistant professor at York University.
“Yet there has been no movement to make alterations to the structure (of the program).”
Workers’ precarious immigration status is a key part of that structure. While the federal government recently made changes to its migrant caregiver program so that participants can eventually become residents here, seasonal agricultural workers cannot gain permanent residency in Canada — even though many spend decades travelling back and forth from Mexico.
Instead, workers are tied to a single employer through an annual contract — making it almost impossible for migrants to leave an abusive workplace.
These closed work permits “facilitate employer control and exploitation of workers including working excessive hours without payment for overtime, unpaid hours of work and often less than minimum wage pay, illegal deductions and predatory recruitment fees,” says a submission to the federal government made earlier this year by the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.
All of those issues are repeatedly reflected in the complaints reviewed by the Star. The complaints often raise multiple issues impacting numerous workers on a given farm.
On one Ontario farm, a worker said their supervisor demanded a $500 bribe if they wanted to return the next year. In another, a worker said low wage-migrants were promised a bonus if they moved faster but were never paid once the work was complete.
“The employer doesn’t want workers to rest and screams vulgarities at them, rushing them,” reads one complaint about a Quebec employer from 2017. “We are not slaves.”
More than 450 complaints said when migrants fell ill, the medical treatment they are entitled to as Canadian taxpayers was denied or delayed — sometimes with life and death consequences. In one instance, a worker reported telling his employer he felt ill; the employer, the worker said, ignored him. Eventually he was hospitalized with severe appendicitis.
“The doctor said that my life was saved by minutes,” the complaint reads.
The Star could not independently verify each of the 3,100 complaints about farms across the country. But some farms had multiple complaints by different workers who testified to witnessing or experiencing similar abuse. Other complaints recorded by Mexican officials noted that workers provided video and photographic evidence to support their claims.
Housing was the single biggest issue raised by workers, with more than 1,200 complaints that cite bedbugs, snakes, broken amenities, gas leaks, sewage issues and overcrowding among other problems.
“There is a rat infestation and the sink in the bathroom never worked,” says a 2009 complaint about an Ontario farm. “The employer does not let workers talk, sing, laugh or make noise.”
At a farm near London that has been the subject of multiple complaints in recent years, the Star saw bunk beds for 50 workers in an unfinished basement. Many of the bottom bunks were curtained off with cardboard or garbage bags for privacy. There was no bathroom or kitchen. Migrants had to bathe, cook and use portable bathrooms outside. The Star is not naming the farm in order to protect workers from possible reprisal.
In another part of the same house, 16 workers shared one stove and one bathroom. In total, the Star counted almost 100 beds in the house. Workers said their employer deducted $15 a week off their pay for accommodation, which would net almost $50,000 a year for their employer.
Canadian employers are required under the program to provide “clean, adequate” housing to migrant workers at no cost, but are allowed to charge workers up to $2.31 a day for utility expenses.
Workers said the Mexican consulate had visited the farm but conditions had not changed. They said they feared complaining to the Mexican authorities because they had colleagues who were not called back to Canada for one or two years after speaking out.
“They act like it’s our fault,” one worker told the Star.
Mexico is one of 10 countries that have an agreement with Canada to send seasonal agricultural workers; last year, more than 25,000 Mexican workers cycled through Canadian farms.
Reporting abuse in Canada can sometimes have consequences for workers, complaints reviewed by the Star suggest. In more than 250 cases, workers reported experiencing retaliation for raising concerns including reports that their employer threatened to send them back to Mexico or replace them with workers from other countries.
Martina Garcia Juarez, 51, first came to Canada as a migrant worker in 2002; she needed to support her family after separating from a violent partner. About seven years ago, she was placed on a farm in British Columbia and says she worked 14-hour days and shared a bathroom with eight women. The farm was reported to Mexican authorities, but Juarez then lost her place in the program; she wasn’t selected to participate again until this year.
“They would treat us badly with words like ‘f— you,” said Juarez. “They would throw the (cherry) baskets at us with these words and call us bitches.”
Faraday says competition between countries to send temporary workers — and gain from the valuable remittances they generate — puts pressure on workers not to speak out.
“If workers from a particular country are too active in pursuing their rights or enforcing their rights, employers can and do shift the country from which they recruit workers,” Faraday said.
Get more of the Star in your inbox
Never miss the latest news from the Star. Sign up for our newsletters to get today’s top stories, your favourite columnists and lots more in your inbox
“The employer mistreats new workers psychologically, telling them that they are garbage and worthless and that they will bring Hondurans instead,” says one 2011 complaint by a Mexican worker.
(Honduras does not participate in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program but sends migrants to Canada through a different temporary foreign worker stream that also caters to the agriculture industry.)
This summer, the federal government implemented a new provision that will give open work permits to some migrant workers who can document abuse, allowing them to leave their employer without losing their right to work in Canada.
But the complaints obtained by the Star illustrate the extreme isolation some workers experience, as well as the high degree of control their employers exercise over their lives — obstacles to reporting violations.
In one case, a worker reported that migrants lived in the same house as their employer and were forced to perform unpaid labour to “earn the food the employers provide.” In another from 2016, a migrant reported that their employer would open and read their correspondence.
Migrants sometimes reported struggling even to leave the isolated farms where they lived and worked: on at least 150 occasions, workers told Mexican officials their employers did not provide transportation — as is legally required — so migrants could do basic tasks like buying groceries or sending money home.
In one case from 2015, a worker reported having to walk eight kilometres to get to the closest Walmart. In another from 2012, a worker reported his supervisor threatened to send him back to Mexico because he did not “ask permission” to go into town to send money to his wife.
In order to apply for an open work permit in Canada, migrant workers must file an online application in English or French, and provide documentary evidence translated by a certified translator. The website is also only available in English and French.
Most migrant workers from Mexico do not speak English and about 42 per cent have a primary school education or less, data obtained from the Mexican Ministry of Labour shows. Half left school by age 15.
This, combined with the need for ready access to a computer, means the open work permit system is “probably almost impossible” for migrants to use, said Santiago Escobar, a national representative with United Food and Commercial Workers of Canada, which assists temporary foreign workers.
“To think that migrant workers will be able to apply themselves, I find that to be unrealistic,” Escobar said.
“A robust enforcement system needs to first look at how the migration program is structured to facilitate unsafe working and living conditions,” said Jessica Ponting of the Toronto-based legal clinic Industrial Accident Victims Group.
“Workers need to be afforded open work permits and permanent residency status on arrival so that employers do not have such unmitigated power.”
As for the Canadian government’s enforcement efforts, Faraday describes them as “largely theoretical.”
Last year, Employment and Social Development Canada inspected 350 of the 2,600 farms using migrant workers, according to a spokesperson. The hundreds of annual complaints made to the Mexican authorities are sometimes investigated by the five consular officials scattered across Canada, said the Mexican Ministry of Labour’s Enrique Evangelista Cortes. If the information is “verified” by these five officials, it is passed on to the Canadian government.
Last year, Canadian authorities received 52 such tips.
Provinces also bear responsibility for employers’ compliance with labour laws. In Ontario, the program’s largest user, the Ministry of Labour conducted an inspection blitz of workplaces using temporary foreign workers; over the course of two years, 19 farms were visited. (In one region of the province alone, Niagara, there are more than 480 employers using temporary foreign workers, local authorities told the Star.)
The ministry said it had launched a blitz this fall that will include employers of migrant workers, but said it couldn’t provide further details.
Last year, the federal government began requiring Canadian employers to submit satisfactory housing inspection reports in order to participate in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. In Ontario, these inspections are done by municipal health units.
If employers fail to meet any requirements, workers will not be sent to their farms. But the inspections do not occur during the growing season when workers actually inhabit the bunkhouses. Even if they did, health units have no ability to fine employers for shoddy or unsafe housing because there are no legislated standards for farm worker accommodation.
“We’re not saying all employers do this,” says Sonia Aviles, a migrant worker organizer in Niagara Region. “But employers do what the system allows them to.”
This story was made possible with the financial assistance of the R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship.