Response to Chilliwack Times article on Farm Workers

Posted by admin on Jan 8th, 2008

Statement from Justicia for Migrant Workers BC regarding the December 21, 2007 article in the Chilliwack Times entitled Housing for Farm Workers an Issue

January 3, 2008 – Justicia for Migrant Workers would like to express its disgust with the language used in the Dec. 21, 2007 article in the Chilliwack Times Housing for Farm Workers an Issue. We believe the comments included in the article are offensive to the dignity of migrant and Indo-Canadian farm workers, and furthermore demonstrate a disturbing trend of racism, discrimination and intolerance that appears to be all too common in conservative Fraser Valley communities.

For example, in reference to the possibility of having 30 migrant workers, presumably Mexicans, living across the road from him, Chilliwack resident Bob Esau is quoted as saying “Who controls these workers after they are not working? That’s a lot of people to put into a rural situation.”

Migrant workers, like everyone else, are free human beings entitled to do whatever they want, short of breaking the law, on their free time. The suggestion that they should be “controlled” when they are not working is outrageous and recalls attitudes similar to those of plantation owners when speaking about slaves. It is racist, repugnant and highly offensive.

The owner of a farm on which worker housing is to be built, Stan Vander Waal, is quoted as saying migrant workers “have to conform to the rules of the property. If there are problems they have to live by the rules or we send ’em back.”

Again, this language is suggestive of migrant workers as slaves with no rights. First of all it is not the employer who sets the “rules.” In the case of migrant farm workers it is the responsibility of the governments of Canada and Mexico to set and enforce the guidelines that govern the program, and which both employers and farm workers must follow. Furthermore it would be a grave injustice for an employer to have the right to arbitrarily deport a worker if he should deem the “rules” are not being followed, particularly in the absence of fair and neutral mediation.

It is our experience from our work on the ground that most of the time under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program it is the employers who “break the rules”, whether they be housing guidelines or terms of the work contract, and they are rarely, if ever, subjected to any sort of punishment for this. On the other hand workers who voice any concerns on issues of safety, housing, abuse, health, etc. are routinely punished by being threatened, deported and/or blacklisted.

Chilliwack Councilmember Sharon Gaetz is quoted as having concerns over “some dreadful experiences” with farm worker housing in the community. We can only surmise she means from the perspective of farm workers themselves, who often have to endure slum-like housing that would shock the average middle class Canadian, and that is completely unacceptable in a country such as this one.

Another council member, Mark Andersen, recalls a personal experience in which he and his family “basically became prisoners within our house because whenever we would step out onto our patio we had to endure 30 to 35 Indo-Canadian men staring at my wife.” Once more, these comments suggest unacceptable racial and ethnic stereotyping, and it is shocking and shameful that in this day a person of authority would utter such words.

Comments like these, and the deep seated attitudes they reflect, are what one would expect from 1800’s deep south plantation owners, and it is a sad but all too real fact that they persist and are entrenched to this day in some retrograde sectors of Canadian society.

The reality is that farm workers, be they migrant or Indo-Canadian, endure the abysmal wages, living and working conditions of Canadian farms because they have to, and because the agricultural industry demands it. That these conditions persist in a supposedly rich country such as Canada is a continuing outrage and source of national shame. It is with sadness that we feel compelled to remind the people quoted in this article, and those who share their views, that farm workers are not slaves or indentured serfs. They are entitled to every single human right, and all the dignity and respect, in the highest current universal human and labor rights standards, including the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers (even if the Canadian government, in defiance of the global consensus, refuses to sign it).

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