Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SWAP)

Migrant workers are brought into Canada to fill the "labour shortage" created by low wages and unsatisfactory working conditions in order to make profit. 

by Adriana Paz

Some say that nothing happens by chance. At the very least, it was a fortunate accident that my first job, when I arrived in Canada from Bolivia threeyears ago, was in a tomato greenhouse in South Delta, BC – one of the first in the province to request migrant farm workers from Mexico under the federal Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). 

My first observation was that brown bodies are the pickers and white bodies are the managers. I naively asked my boss why there are no Canadians picking tomatoes. He answered me simply, “Because this is not a job for them.” 

That was my first lesson in Canadian social history. In BC, most farm workers are and have long been immigrants of colour, including recently a growing number of seasonal migrants under SAWP and a related federal scheme, the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. Battered by the whims of global capital and local government policy, farm workers are the most vulnerable part of the work force, facing extreme job and economic insecurity. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC, most farm workers in the province are immigrants from India, chiefly women in their 50s and 60s who came to Canada under the family reunification program. Lack of language skills and the obligation to their families to repay money advanced for their immigration pressure them to accept working conditions that Canadian workers find unacceptable. 

Their plight is worsened by the Farm Labour Contractor (FLC) system. The FLCs act as coyotes or intermediaries between farm workers and greenhouses/farms, determining how workers will get to the job, how long they will work, what they will earn, and so on. The FLCs do nothing to ensure respect for employment standards and safety regulations, leading to all sorts of violations while the provincial authorities close their eyes. 

How to create a labour shortage 

Since 2000, farm operators in BC have been complaining of a shortage of labour to harvest their crops. It’s not hard to find the cause. Wages are low, often less than the legal minimum, and working conditions are substandard, so workers are unwilling to work in agriculture if they have a choice. 

The farm operators are of course passing on downwards the immense pressures they face from the forces of globalization and the power of agribusiness monopolies. Far from providing protection against these profiteers, the government, urged on by the farm/greenhouse operators, has adopted policies that have worsened the “labour shortage.” 

Nothing was done to raise farm labour wages or to increase the supply of immigrant labour. To make matters worse, Citizenship and Immigration Canada in 2003 restricted the family reunification program, reducing South Asian immigration to Canada. Meanwhile the federal government is closing the door to permanent immigration of farm workers while steadily moving towards a US-style policy based on temporary migration. 

All this is of course the total opposite of the “free market” policies that the government claims to support. By aggressively expanding Temporary Worker Programs, the government is manipulating market conditions to keep wages and working conditions low in order to increase corporate profits. 

How to create a labour surplus 

The rural economy of Mexico has been devastated in recent years by NAFTA. The economic collapse of the Mexican countryside has created waves of migrants seeking a future in Mexico’s large cities and in the US. Half a million brave the dangerous journey north every year. The migrants’ remittances back home are now Mexico’s largest source of foreign revenue, about $25 billion annually.

The result is to create in Canada an underclass of workers stamped with the labels of “foreign,” “undocumented,” “unskilled,” and “temporary.” Meanwhile it relieves the Mexican government of responsibility to ensure healthy rural and urban development throughout the country. 

Government-imposed servitude 

Ottawa’s seasonal agricultural workers program started in 1966 with Caribbean countries. Mexico and Guatemala were incorporated in the seventies. SAWP supplies 20% of seasonal farm jobs on vegetable, fruit, and tobacco farms and greenhouses. 

Under SAWP, a farm worker comes under a temporary work permit visa tied to one single employer for periods of up to eight months. Before leaving the home country, the worker must sign a contract with the employer specifying wages and terms of employment – in other words, sign away the right to seek better conditions while in Canada. The employer is able to dictate contract terms. 

Justicia/Justice for Migrant Workers-BC calls on Ottawa to offer the migrant workers and their families permanent status upon arrival. As things stand, workers have no option to apply for permanent status. They are sent home as soon as their contracts expire – or sooner, if they complain or raise concerns about poor working or living conditions. 

They take with them an evaluation form from their employer, which must be given to the home government. A negative report can result in suspension from the program. Workers also report on their treatment by Canadian employers, but most of them avoid complaints for fear that this would be held against them in reapplying for work in Canada. In the case of Mexico, Canada requires that applicants have less than grade three education, a farmworker background, and strong family ties – factors believed likely to prevent them from establishing themselves in Canada as undocumented workers. 

Once here, workers start at or near minimum wage, exposed to long shifts of hard labour (up to 16 hour days in peak season). They receive no overtime pay, no paid holidays, sometimes no weekends, and no vacation pay. They are also subjected to unfair paycheck deductions for social benefits such as Unemployment Insurance and Canadian Pension Plan that they can never receive because of their “temporary” status. 

Migrant labourers work here for years, coming and going yearly, sometimes for their entire work life. They develop ties here and establish themselves to a degree, but are never able to settle with their families. Children at home grow up without fathers, while men here establish separate lives, and the fabrics of relationships and communities are strained. 

Such temporary worker programs depress standards for all workers in Canada. The migrant-worker programs are yet another tactic of the “divide and conquer” strategy that aims to divide and fracture the working class. They encourage a perception that migrant workers threaten the jobs and employment standards of the local population, when in fact it is the migrant-labour programs – not the workers – that threaten us all. 

The need to organize 

The creation of this oppressed migrant workforce must be answered by a migrant labour movement that seeks real and lasting solutions and is established in both origin and destination countries. This movement must be based on grassroots organizing initiatives that empower workers to lead their own struggle. Real changes happen only when those most affected are at the forefront of the struggle. 

In BC, unlike other provinces, migrant farm workers are allowed to unionize. Some Canadian unions have sought to respond to their plight, as with the temporary workers employed on the Richmond-Vancouver rapid transit line and the Golden Ears Bridge over the Fraser River. The United Food and Commercial Workers operate Migrant Support Centres in Ontario, Manitoba, Quebec, and recently, BC. On the whole, however, efforts by the trade union movement to defend these workers have been sporadic. 

After my first “Canadian social history lesson” in the tomato greenhouse three years ago, many more followed. The most powerful and hopeful lessons came from the migrant farm workers themselves, who through the years have been resisting with admirable courage and dignity their “patrones” (bosses), both on the farms and in consular offices, where officials often support the employers. Sometimes they resist silently and sometimes loudly, accompanied by external supporters or just by themselves. They demand the right to be human beings, not just the “economic units” that global capital needs them to be. 


See Cultivating Farmworker Rights, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, June 18, 2008. 

Adriana Paz is a co-founder of Justicia/Justice for Migrant Workers-BC, a volunteer collective that strives to promote the rights of workers who annually participate in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). 

This article is adapted from the original published in Socialist Voice, June 2008

[From WS November/December 2008]

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