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The impacts of the climate crisis are socially and geographically uneven: the wealthiest regions contribute disproportionately to the destruction of the planet while the poorest regions suffer the heaviest consequences.

In this context, migrant farmworkers find themselves doubly displaced, facing droughts and inundations in their home countries, then heatwaves, fires and floods where they come to work.

Environmental leaders came together in BC this summer to call for a holistic approach to the climate crisis, but an earnest uptake of this call means we need to redress the racism of the legislated precarity of migrant work in this province.

 

BC hosts UN climate conference during the worst wildfires in the province’s history

As wildfires burned in BC this August, Vancouver played host to a conference of environmental leaders from around the world for the seventh assembly of the Global Environment Facility (GEF). In the week of the conference, which ran from August 22 to 26, more than 1.7 million hectares of land burned in BC and more than 27,000 British Columbians were displaced from their homes, with another 54,000 placed on evacuation alert.

Premier David Eby declared a state of emergency on August 18, telling British Columbians that “it’s the worst wildfire season in our province’s history,” just two months after the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre declared 2023 the worst fire year on record for the country. The juxtaposition of devastating wildfires as a backdrop to an environmental conference did not go unnoticed by its participants. GEF CEO Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau all pointed to the wildfires as evidence that climate action needs to be ramped-up quickly.

“It’s happening right now,” Rodriguez said, “look outside your window.”

The GEF is the UN-affiliated body responsible for administering billions of dollars through funds primarily aimed at supporting countries in the Global South to meet their climate targets. At its outset in 1991, the GEF was housed and administered by the colonially structured World Bank but was shortly thereafter restructured to meet the calls of formerly colonized countries for more democratic operating principles and is now an independent body with 186 member governments and 18 implementing agencies. 

While the GEF offers no explicit acknowledgment of a line of causality from colonialism to capitalism for the climate crisis, this transfer of capital from high-GDP to low-GDP nations gives the appearance of an attempt to account for the global imbalance in cause and effect of climate damage.

This year’s assembly emphasized an “inclusive” and “holistic” approach to tackling climate change: “Turning 2030 goals into reality will require action across all of society, and with environmental challenges considered in a holistic way.” However, Indiana University Anthropologist Eduardo Bronzino argued that, “if the GEF wants the help and support of IPLCs [Indigenous Peoples and local communities] in delivering greater global environmental benefits, it must address the aspirations of, and threats faced by, IPLCs that go beyond the environment dimension.”

 

Migrant farmworkers are neglected by provincial and federal governments in times of crisis

In his remarks to attendees, Trudeau echoed the assembly’s holistic messaging saying, “no one country, no one people can pretend anymore that what happens or doesn’t happen on the other side of the world doesn’t matter to them.”

So, what does Canada’s treatment of migrant farmworkers say about what matters to us?

The evacuation orders issued in the week of the GEF assembly also displaced an estimated 600 migrant workers from Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica and other countries of the Global South here through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to work BC farms’ high season.

Not for the first time, migrant farmworkers had to rely on community organizations to fill in the gaps of the province’s emergency response efforts, much as they had at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the wake of BC’s 2021 floods. This summer, some workers found themselves stranded in evacuation zones due to a lack of transportation, some were sent to overcrowded housing, some were left without food and some were brought to work on other farms in ongoing smoky conditions. As in previous crises, the challenges were exacerbated by a lack of Spanish translation of emergency notices, barriers to accessing emergency supports, lost wages and deportations.

Compounding factors put pressure on migrant farmworkers in BC to continue working in unsafe conditions rather than lose wages that their families depend on: employers are not obligated to pay lost wages during natural disasters; workers’ temporary status means they don’t have access to employment insurance (EI) benefits despite paying into the program; workers don’t feel they can depend on provincial emergency funds because they have been unable to access them in the past; and if farmers decide the crops are too damaged to farm, workers face forced repatriation and the loss of thousands in anticipated income as was the case for many workers this wildfire season.

Many migrant farmworkers were thus forced to work through smoky conditions throughout August as the Central Okanagan region Air Quality Health Index surpassed 10 or “Very High Health Risk,” conditions under which Environment Canada advises the public to avoid, reduce or reschedule strenuous activities outdoors, especially if symptoms such as coughing and throat irritation are experienced. Migrant workers reported experiencing symptoms related to exposure to wildfire smoke such as headaches, inflammation and feeling faint.

WorkSafeBC, the agency mandated by the provincial government to oversee occupational health and safety, failed to provide any support to migrant farmworkers during the wildfires, suggesting instead that it was employers’ responsibility to eliminate or minimize workers’ exposure to smoke.

 

BC’s farming industry is a breeding ground for modern-day slavery

As the GEF assembly took place in Vancouver, a UN special rapporteur arrived in Ottawa for a two week visit to assess this country’s efforts to prevent and address contemporary forms of slavery. In his statement on the visit, Tomoya Obokata said he was disturbed by the policies that regulate migrant farmworkers’ immigration status, employment and housing in Canada, warning that “the agricultural and low-wage streams of the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme (TFWP) constitute a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery.” He was “particularly concerned that this workforce is disproportionately racialized, attesting to deep-rooted racism and xenophobia entrenched in Canada’s immigration system” and “perturbed by reports that the share of workers entering Canada through this programme is sharply on the rise.”

BC’s agricultural sector has steadily increased its dependence on migrant labour since it began leaning on the TFWP two decades ago, going from under 1,000 workers admitted through the program in 2005 to over 10,000 temporary foreign workers brought in annually by 2021. The BC Fruit Growers’ Association estimates temporary foreign workers now make up between 50% and 66% of fruit farms’ seasonal workforce.

Relying on migrant labour is supposed to be a “last resort for employers to fill jobs for which qualified Canadians are not available,” according to Employment Canada, and requires employers to complete a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA), which verifies the need for foreign workers is justified and there are no Canadians or permanent residents available for the job. But the federal government continually weakens these requirements and the provincial government has ensured farm work remains untenable for Canadians. This seasonal, physically demanding work, subject to extreme weather conditions, is among the lowest paid in the province by design as the BC government long ago eliminated vacation pay and overtime and maintains stagnating piece-rates in the industry, which can fall far below the minimum hourly wage. These practices foster vacancies that can be filled with foreign workers whose status is too precarious to challenge the sector’s low pay and poor working conditions.

 “The agricultural and low-wage streams of the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme constitute a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery.”

The devaluation of labour from racialized bodies and the destruction of the economies they live in as a result of the ongoing processes of colonialism and racial capitalism provide BC’s agricultural industry with a steady supply of cheap labour from the Global South. 

Employers in BC are empowered to perpetuate these racist dynamics through the TFWP that takes in workers under captive and insecure conditions. Workers are hired for a maximum of eight months or two years depending on the stream under which they are admitted and they are bound to the employer named on the work permit. Workers pay rent for shared, often dilapidated and overcrowded, housing on farmers’ properties, making their employers their defacto landlords and constant surveyors. The power this gives to employers combined with the lack of oversight by either the federal or provincial government leaves workers vulnerable to mistreatment and deportation should they try to stand up for their rights. 

The TFWP provides a legal framework for the province to extract value from people whose labour has been systemically devalued on a global scale without having to share the spoils of its own colonial economy. This concurrently produces a disciplinary effect on BC’s domestic agricultural labour market, which is primarily made up of racialized recent immigrants.  

Migrant workers face a double displacement in the climate crisis from severe droughts and inundations in their home countries that force them to seek employment elsewhere and from wildfires and flooding here in BC where they have come to work. Financial contributions to GEF funds don’t excuse Canada from benefiting from the economic devastation in the Global South that undergirds workers’ migration to BC. If we are serious about tackling the climate crisis, the provincial and federal governments need to reform the programs that perpetuate racist colonial relations of power, starting with the temporary migrant farmworker programs.

 

New crisis, same recommendations

From the COVID-19 pandemic to flooding and wildfires, each crisis underscores calls to reform the TFWP. Researchers, community activists and workers themselves have thoroughly documented the systemic mistreatment of migrant farmworkers and repeatedly outlined policy changes that would reduce their vulnerability to abuse, made worse during climate emergencies.[1]

These calls have urged the federal government to immediately and automatically grant open work permits and access to EI to all workers affected by the wildfires without the need for workers to navigate application processes that require English proficiency, fee payments and computer access.

Looking beyond the current state of emergency, these calls have pressed the federal government to ensure migrant workers have the same rights as Canadian citizens, which means replacing the employer-specific work permits of the TFWP agricultural substreams with open work permits and granting workers permanent status on arrival. 

The federal government’s past promises of improved protections and pathways to citizenship for temporary foreign workers have fallen short, particularly for migrant farmworkers. Unsafe housing and employer abuses continue unchecked and fewer than 14% of migrant workers in agriculture get permanent residence within their first five years working in Canada (compared to 42% in food production, for example). Permanent status offers migrant workers the best protection against mistreatment and this status must include access to the Employment Insurance and Canada Pension Plan programs to which they contribute. 

And, Canada’s response to the climate crisis’ increasingly extreme weather needs to include implementation of national housing standards that ensure migrant farmworkers have healthy indoor air quality, cooling and sufficient personal space. These standards must be enforced by public officials rather than privately audited by employer-hired contractors.

Addressing racial inequality means eliminating the policies that make farm work unsustainable for Canadians and guaranteeing fair work and wages for domestic and foreign farmworkers alike. 

The BC government must apply the Employment Standards Act to all farm work in the province, including access to breaks, statutory holidays, vacation and overtime pay and severance. To ensure farmworkers’ health and safety, WorkSafeBC oversight needs to be drastically expanded, migrant workers must be covered by MSP on arrival and have accessible and privacy-protected health care. The province must also ensure that migrant workers receive equitable emergency services during climate crises. 

The fragmentation of government branches that oversee migrant farm work is used to protect each branch from responsibility over the treatment of these workers. The provincial and federal governments need to establish a clear division of duty to ensure that the TFWP does not perpetuate the devaluation of labour from the Global South through indentured work programs.

 

Notes

  1. See, for example, Jamaican migrant farmworkers’ 2022 open letter, the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group’s 2023 open letter, the Migrant Workers Centre’s 2023 open letter, Justicia for Migrant Workers’ open letter, the UFCW’s annual report on the status of migrant workers, the Worker Solidarity Network’s climate and labour campaign and the CCPA-BC’s own reporting, among many other campaigns and reports.

 

This article was originally published on CCPA-BC’s Policy Note website.