Every year more temporary migrant workers come to Canada to fill labour shortages in the agricultural sector. While research has examined the ways that these workers are made vulnerable and exploitable due to their temporary statuses, less has focused on the subjective experiences of migrant agricultural workers in regards their workplace health and safety. We conducted interviews and focus groups with migrant workers in the interior of British Columbia, Canada and used a narrative line of inquiry to highlight two main themes that illustrate the implicit and complex mechanisms that can structure migrant agricultural workers’ workplace climate, and ultimately, endanger their health and safety. The two themes we elaborate are (1) authorities that silence; and (2) ‘I will not leave my body here.’
We discuss the implications of each theme, ultimately arguing that a number of complex political and economic forces create a climate of coercion in which workers feel compelled to choose between their health and safety and tenuous economic security.
Our findings identified two over-arching themes that largely determined workers’ occupational health and safety environments.
Theme 1: Authorities That Silence
In Theme 1, authorities that enable and silence, migrant workers described ways in which authorities intended to protect them, particularly the consular officials and employers, either actively or passively helped reinforce coercive power dynamics, and/or, failed to deliver on protections promised under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program in Canada. The subtheme of ‘it doesn’t make sense to say anything to them,’ revealed workers’ sense of powerlessness in the workplace. Of significance, accounts revealed that authorities enforced workers’ conformity rather than empowering them to assert their rights to adequate health and labour standards.
The subtheme of ‘there is no-one to enforce the rules,’ illustrated the limited visibility and presence of supports and authorities ensuring adequate health and safety standards in the workplace. In many cases, workers reported not having any contact with authorities or inspectors who would be in a position to monitor or regulate workplace conditions. Participants also distinguished between unannounced and announced inspections, articulating that the norm of announced inspections in the workplace created a permissive climate in which poorer working conditions could go unchecked. Without regular monitoring of their work environments, the onus was on workers to self-report workplace hazards that were putting their health at risk. Yet individuals typically did not feel empowered to report these concerns, and in the cases that they did report them to authorities, they were often made to feel more vulnerable than protected.
Prior research has identified various layers of vulnerability that contribute to a coercive and unhealthy work environment. Such research requires us to consider conditions such as precarity (e.g., in terms of dependence on another for permission to stay in Canada), freedom (e.g., a prescribed place of residence) and segregation (including familial separation and geographic isolation) as key determinants of health and healthcare access for migrant agricultural workers. Considering these conditions in light of our current findings, it is clear that stories shared under the theme of ‘authorities that silence’ are so prominent in workers’ lives precisely because alternative pathways and supports towards health are so clearly restricted or limited. In short, without the freedom, power, or opportunity to speak up about health issues in the workplace or to refuse unsafe work or poor living conditions, then the project of improving this population’s health must be closely tied to the politics of stabilizing security and status for this group.
These vulnerabilities are also felt simultaneously at regional, national, and international levels. For example, the local economies of Caribbean and Mexican countries have been largely devastated by liberalized trade agreements and mega-projects. As these local economies are undermined, workers of the Global South have been displaced or relocated in order to find economic means to sustain their families, and a more captive, and even desperate, workforce is created. Yet specifics of the program also play an important role in creating coercive and under-monitored workplace conditions. The practice of being tied to a specific employer (being ‘renamed’) for instance, has been criticized because it places unique power in the hands of the employer to determine not just a worker’s ability to stay employed at a particular work site, but by extension, their status in the program, and ability to remain in Canada. Advocates have suggested policy alternatives such as open work permits and the granting of permanent residence upon arrival. Both of these policies would enable workers to increase their workplace mobility, and consequently, better empower them to refuse unsafe or hazardous work practices that threaten their most basic physical and mental health. If workers are able to refuse unsafe work, perhaps by extension, there will be increased incentive for employers to improve their workplace environments. Yet the option of permanent status upon arrival would also allow workers the opportunity for greater protection under the law, and would remove jurisdictional blurriness that maintains workers at the margins of legal protections.
Scholars have long criticized the inadequacies of complaint-driven mechanisms that take a reactive rather than a proactive stance to the regulation of workplace conditions. Under pressure from advocates and migrant rights groups, the Canadian government has committed to increasing unannounced inspections to provide greater oversight of substandard workplace and housing conditions faced by migrant agricultural workers. These regulatory practices would have some potential to strengthen oversight of the program and even increase workers’ confidence that they can assert their rights on the job. Yet as noted in the accounts above, it would require adequate staffing, resources, and political will to implement such approaches, both by Canadian authorities and sending country consulates. Complicating the calls to improve the oversight and regulation of the program is that workers who have experienced a great deal of hardship may carry a mentality of ‘better the devil you know.’ In fact, our consultations confirmed that most workers had experienced similar challenges, but that they were reticent to leave their bosses for fear that their next workplace could be even more difficult or unsafe. Ultimately, this suggests that even if ideal regulatory mechanisms intended to protect migrant agricultural workers are established, it will require that officials first regain the trust and confidence of workers who have been failed by regulatory authorities in the past. This theme also suggests that if workers’ access to protections continues to be limited and perceived as both systematic and routine, these individuals are likely to normalize risk in the workplace, further endangering both their physical and mental health.
Theme 2: “I will not leave my body here.”
In Theme 2, ‘I will not leave my body here,’ participants’ stories revealed ways in which their economic and political status created lose–lose conditions in which they felt compelled to sacrifice their physical health for short-term security in the SAWP while at the same time endangering their long-term livelihood in this same program, and even their basic survival. Workers expressed a deep ambivalence about this relationship, both expressing acts of defiance or intentions to refuse unsafe work conditions, while still not feeling at liberty to refuse unsafe conditions or labour standards. Cohen and Hjalmarson’s prior research indicates that even amidst coercive labour conditions, migrant agricultural workers are active in creatively resisting exploitative conditions and that they are not merely passive participants in agricultural programs. Nonetheless, the material consequences of living within this coercive climate have inevitable consequences for the health and safety of migrant agricultural workers.
Participants in this study were reluctant to report workplace injuries, refuse unsafe workplace practices, seek medical attention for workplace injuries, and assert their rights to adequate hygiene (e.g., handwashing stations, washrooms) and prevention measures (e.g., seatbelts, breaks, protective equipment). A lack of oversight and will to ensure that these measures are in place in the workplace will continue to have significant consequences on the physical and mental health of migrant agricultural workers.
Given the health risks and challenges faced by this population, workers’ ability to access health care services also merits attention. Participants in our study described various barriers to accessing medical care: transportation, geographic isolation, language, limited clinic hours (in combination with demanding work hours), and fear of job loss or medical repatriation. In Ontario, a survey of 6000 migrant agricultural workers indicated that many workers fear, or actually suffer negative consequences because of seeking medical attention. In fact, 44% of respondents stated that a co-worker would work while sick for fear of telling their employer, and one in five reported that their boss had expressed anger as a result of their illness.
While no large surveys have been conducted in BC, the qualitative accounts identified in our narrative inquiry and confirmed in our subsequent consultations, suggest that a similar dynamic can explain the limited healthcare seeking in the Okanagan Valley. Beyond replicating accounts that have been documented in different regions, this theme helps uncover the true motivation behind workers’ limited health-seeking behaviours. This theme challenges commonly held views that workers’ cultures, lack of trust in the Canadian system, or lack of information prevent them from seeking healthcare or related protections. Rather, workers navigate a coercive environment in which they feel that they must choose between their health and their livelihood.
Even in cases when individuals do access medical care, they encounter various challenges that may negatively impact the quality of care they receive. Our interviews with community volunteers accompanying migrant agricultural workers to hospitals and clinics helped to further illustrate these barriers. Volunteers and migrant agricultural workers alike reported a lack of access to an unbiased, third-party translator, for instance, making it difficult for workers to fully disclose their symptoms, especially if the only translator available held a supervisory position in their workplace. In these cases, workers feared disclosing the severity of their symptoms or reporting workplace injuries because it could affect their job status or put them at risk for medical repatriation. In other cases, interviews and content confirmation carried out in our research indicated that employer translators may have a vested interest in downplaying symptoms and preventing the reporting of workplace injury claims that may have financial or regulatory consequences for them. Failure to provide independent care not mediated by an employer may exacerbate vulnerabilities or limit the protection workers are afforded.
Fearing punitive consequences, workers may hide workplace injuries, accept unsafe work practices, and not seek necessary medical treatment. We have even witnessed workers participate in their own medical repatriation, not because it is their preference, but rather, because employers feel threatened by the possibility of a worker seeking compensation for a medical injury. Mirroring our findings, accounts of employer mediation have also played a significant role in limiting health care access and delivery to migrant agricultural workers in Ontario. In addition to anticipating barriers to access and quality care, our theme of ‘I will not leave my body here’ suggests that a more complex approach to healthcare planning that can account for the deep ambivalence that workers may feel about care provision must be developed. For instance, changing standard practice for this group to more proactively screen for workplace injuries, preference for the place where care is provided (e.g., Mexico or Canada), and an explicit reminder of what workers are entitled to, could help foster greater cooperation among migrant workers and their host-country care providers.
Many participants reported out-of-pocket expenses and difficulties receiving compensation by their private insurance company when direct billing is not available in clinics that they access. In British Columbia, the premium rates that residents pay to access provincial health care coverage make access to public health services cost-prohibitive to migrant agricultural workers, even when/if they meet the eligibility requirements for public health coverage. Notably, as of 2020, these monthly premiums will be eliminated, which may have the potential to begin to address healthcare coverage gaps faced by migrant agricultural workers. However, it is important to note that even with fewer financial barriers to registering for provincial health programs, other barriers remain that mean many workers still may not have access to such coverage. For workers in Ontario, notable challenges include the three-month waiting period and their dependence on their employers to assist them in registering for provincial health coverage. Such developments and challenges remind us that healthcare barriers and pressures faced by workers under the theme of ‘I will not leave my body here,’ are very much woven into the equity and governance issues that were revealed in stories of ‘authorities that silence.’ Ultimately then, short and incremental steps towards addressing gaps in healthcare prevention and care provision for this population are warranted, but without attention to the larger social and economic factors that shape and undermine migrant agricultural workers’ living and working conditions in Canada, this group will continue to face significant health and safety challenges.
The findings presented here illustrate the ways in which migrant agricultural workers’ workplace environments are significantly mediated by political and economic structures, such as globalizing forces that have undermined local economies in the Global South, and the limited scope, and in some cases, complicity of sending country ocials that fail to protect workers’ basic rights under the program. However, these macro-level structures do much more than determine transnational oversight mechanisms. They are also reflected at the level of the farm and the worker under these programs, creating coercive, paradoxical, lose–lose choices in which workers may normalize, accept, or only partially resist unsafe or hazardous workplace environments. Provincial and regional bodies that do not interrupt these conditions of coercion, may wittingly or unwittingly reinforce these dynamics, by, for example, relying on complaint-driven mechanisms that place the onus on workers to take on further risk in the attempts to address inappropriate workplace practices. Likewise, healthcare and other public sectors may create further conditions of coercion by posing barriers for workers to access or navigate services, which may require them to confront further risk to their job status, or, long-term health. Ultimately, workers’ right to a healthy, hazard-free workplace must account for the various political, economic, and regulatory factors that currently limit and undermine this very possibility.
Research at a Glance is designed to inform the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) community and other interested parties about recently published, policy-relevant research from government, academic and NGO sources. The views expressed in the documents described do not necessarily reflect those of IRCC.