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The State of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada - Special Report: Marking three decades of advocacy on behalf of Canada’s most exploited workforce (2020)

Posted on:
August 24, 2020

This report suggests that fair treatment of Canada’s agricultural workers requires several urgent and significant reforms at both the federal and provincial levels. However, as United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Canada has asserted on multiple submissions to the federal government, Canada does not need a robust temporary foreign worker program. Canada desperately needs a more inclusive, protective, and healthy immigration system. In addition, UFCW has pointed out that an expanded Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) should not be viewed as the solution to labour challenges facing Canada’s agri-food system. A broader labour strategy is needed for this crucial sector.


In the mid-1960s, in an attempt to meet the seasonal labour needs of Canadian agricultural producers, the federal government created the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), turning to the Caribbean for a temporary stream of foreign workers.The SAWP now falls within the primary agricultural stream of the Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) program administered by Employment and Services Development Canada (ESDC).

Initially, this was intended to be a last resort and only a temporary solution; however, over 50 years later, this has become a central part of Canada’s primary agricultural industry.Seasonal work by migrant workers now accounts for half of Canada’s paid agricultural workforce. The workers arrive from Mexico or one of the other 11 participating Caribbean countries.Canada has seen a continuous expansion of the migrant and temporary foreign workforce incorporate agriculture under federal programs that deliver migrant workers to employers, and then essentially abandon them to fend for themselves. In 2012 the ESDC issued 39,700 permits for migrant farmworkers. In 2019 that number had risen to 72,000.


65% of migrant agricultural workers are subject to the terms and conditions of the SAWP program, which is negotiated between the participating governments. However, the terms and conditions of employment, as well as other workplace rights and entitlements for agricultural workers, are subject to provincial workplace legislation.Yet, the labour and workplace rights of agricultural workers are far too often expressly excluded, making migrant agricultural workers more vulnerable than the general Canadian workforce, as their legal rights and entitlements are fewer.

As a result, Canada’s migrant agricultural workers work in conditions where exploitation and abuse are common. This is also fuelled by the fact that workers who are hired through the SAWP and TFW are only allowed to work for the specific employer who hired them. Their “closed” work permit and the exclusion from collective bargaining rights of agricultural workers in Ontario, where about 40% of temporary migrant agricultural workers are employed, puts these workers in a vulnerable position where the employer has all the power over the employee.

In June 2019, the federal government’s response to this was the introduction of the open work permit for vulnerable workers’ program. This program grants an open work permit of one year to migrant workers under the SAWP and TFWP who have experienced or are experiencing any type of abuse, such as physical, psychological, sexual, or financial. However, as these permits are only temporary, they do not address the long-term need of workers for protection and fair labour.


The authors suggest that meaningful reform is necessary. Not only do Temporary Foreign Workers experience higher rates of wage theft and workplace abuse, but they are also dependent on the moods of their employers to be able to stay in Canada.

Federal reforms recommended:

  1. Make union representation a necessary condition of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, as the best practical measure in providing proper representation and protection to Canada’s most precarious and vulnerable worker population;
  2. End employer-specific work permits and replace them with open work permits, or at least, occupation-specific work permits;
  3. Expand the Agri-food Pilot program to allow for an additional 5,000 permanent residency opportunities, per year, dedicated to the primary agricultural stream;
  4. Establish a tripartite sector council dedicated to reducing Canada’s over-reliance on Temporary Foreign Workers by collaborating on innovative active labour market policy options;
  5. Establish a federal tribunal to properly allow for the review and appeal of repatriation decisions in advance of TFWs being sent home by employers;
  6. Provide SAWP and TFWP workers with access to Canada’s Employment Insurance Program which they have paid into since 1966
  7. Sign the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1990.

Provincial reforms recommended:

  1. Repeal Ontario’s Agricultural Employees Protection Act. The Ontario Labour Relations Act must be amended to include agricultural workers, or the Agricultural Labour Relations Act should be revived to truly respect the collective bargaining rights of agricultural workers;
  2. Bill 26 must be repealed in Alberta; all agricultural workers should be fully included in Alberta’s Labour Code without exception;
  3. Bill 8 must be repealed in Quebec; all agricultural workers should be fully included in Quebec’s Labour Code without exception;
  4. Institute and properly enforce the Manitoba model in all provinces with respect to regulating and penalizing offshore recruiters of foreign workers;
  5. Establish significant fines and/or jail sentences for domestic recruiters and temporary work agencies who are found to exploit migrant workers;
  6. Eliminate piece rate and set quotas as they facilitate labour exploitation and create physical and mental issues that impact the wellbeing of migrant workers.
  7. Ban the practice of housing workers above or adjacent to greenhouses in recognition of the apparent dangers associated with living in buildings housing chemicals, fertilizers, boilers, industrial fans and/or heaters.


This report suggests that fair treatment of Canada’s agricultural workers requires several urgent and significant reforms at both the federal and provincial levels.