Canadian smugness was on full display recently as Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s senior minister in charge of NAFTA negotiations, berated Mexican officials over poor working conditions and the absence of labor protections for Mexican workers. Her comments came in the wake of negotiations that culminated in the signing of NAFTA 2.0, now called the United States-México-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
As part of the new trade deal, and to ensure that companies who operate in Mexico adhere to strengthened labor protections such as the right to collective bargaining and the right to form independent unions, Mexico has agreed to increase inspections and implement investigations for companies found not to be in compliance.
While questions remain regarding who will conduct these inspections and investigations, the labor protections in the new deal are a smokescreen that hides the realities faced by migrant workers in North America.
Indeed, Freeland’s self righteous approach to labor protections would be comical if we ignored the hypocrisy in how Mexican workers and tens of thousands of other migrant workers are treated within the boundaries of the Canadian state.
While championing the rights of workers overseas, politicians and trade negotiators alike would like us all to forget that migrant agricultural workers are subjected to substandard labor protections that leave them employed in precarious and dangerous conditions.
Reynaldo López is one of those workers Canadian officials want us to forget.
The father of four from Oaxaca worked in Canada’s greenhouses for seven years before developing leukemia. He believed that his sickness was caused by heavy pesticide use at his workplace. At the tender age of 35, López was sent back to Mexico with little money to pay for healthcare, where he died because of his sickness.
To date, there has been no investigation to see if there was a correlation between López’s exposure to pesticides and his premature death.
Canada condemns Mexico’s labor standards, but it does not take responsibility for downloading health care costs onto Mexico. These are costs Canada should be held accountable for.
Before his death, López spoke bitterly about the costs to his healthcare. “I can’t work anymore. The only financial aid I got was $2,500 Canadian from health insurance, which was enough to just pay the first chemotherapy, and I need eight more sessions,” he told organizers with Justicia for Migrant workers. “My compañeros at the greenhouse have collected money twice and sent it to help with my expenses.”
Migrant workers don’t do much better while in Canada under the country’s so-called universal healthcare system. Irrespective if a migrant worker is sick or not, the government cuts their access to health care once their immigration status in Canada expires. Sadly, a March 2014 lower court decision in Ontario reaffirmed the termination of healthcare for undocumented migrants, denying them a basic right provided to Canadians.
In addition to two-tiered access to health care, migrant workers who toil in Canadian fields are denied equal access to Employment Insurance and pension plans, and are further excluded from basic labor protections, including the right to overtime and holiday pay.
Migrant workers in Canada, who come under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, are only allowed to work for the employer that signed their initial papers. In the province of Ontario, agricultural workers are excluded from the right to form unions.
Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program recently faced scrutiny after an Ontario human rights tribunal decision, in which Presteve Foods was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for discrimination based on sex, sexual assault and harassment with respect to how two Mexican migrant women were treated in the workplace. Presteve Foods had employed dozens of migrant women. This legal decision wasn’t about weeding out one bad apple, but rather it shines a light on how being tied to a single employer with restricted immigration status leaves workers, and especially women migrants at risk of abuse and exploitation.
Of late, Canada has ramped up immigration raids targeting undocumented communities. Workers can become undocumented in Canada a myriad of ways, and are subjected to additional forms of racial profiling and criminalization by Canadian immigration officials, border officials and local police.
In late June of this year, a group of Mexican workers were arrested detained and deported in London Ontario when neighbour reported suspicious activity when one of the men recovered a ball that had mistakenly bounced into a neighbor’s yard. Local police officials racially profiled the men, denied them access to adequate legal representation and reported them to border officials.
Speaking to CBC’s London affiliate, one of the wives of the detained men noted that he simply was working to cover his daughter’s medical costs back in Mexico. “His only goal is to give his family a better quality of life,” she said. “None of those men [who were arrested] were trying to hinder the country or to disrespect anyone in Canada. They just wanted to work and give their families what they can’t give them here in Mexico.”
Undocumented migrants in Canada are subjected to precarious working conditions and undergo rampant employment standard violations. But Canada would rather criminalize migrants than actually address exploitative working conditions in its fields, greenhouses and factories.
A recent exposé by the Toronto Star revealed the number of complaints migrant farm workers employed under Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers program filed with Mexico’s Ministry of Labor for the period from 2009-2018. They are as follows:
Inaction on complaints to consulate: 167
Lack of or dangerous transportation:195
Lack of work:225
Retaliation for complaints: 258
Workplace safety issues: 351
Illegal or unexplained wage-deductions: 368
Delayed or denied medical attention: 456
Verbal abuse: 597
Payment issues: 697
Working conditions: 827
Canada’s primary objective is to extend its export oriented reach into the global south. The Justicia for Migrant Workers collective, of which I am a part, rejects the expansion of neoliberal trade policies that displace local farmers, destroy Indigenous agricultural practices, and leave workers with very few options outside of migration to participate in a perpetual system of indentured labor.
Big business in Canada is salivating at the opportunity to grab more of the global economic pie, while boasting of the low wage advantage that exists in the domestic food sector. Invest in Canada, the federal agency responsible for increasing foreign investment, recently highlighted that amongst the G7 countries Canada has the second lowest labor costs in the agri-food sector.
Canada is two-faced in claiming to care about Mexican workers. Ottawa’s main concern is ensuring global dominance in industries such as agriculture. The Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance couldn’t have been more clear and consistent on their intentions and motivations in support of the new free trade deal.
If Canada was serious about protecting vulnerable workers, it would take a good hard look in the mirror before pointing a finger at others.
Chris Ramsaroop is an organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers in Ontario.