B.C. Farm Workers Treated Like 'Hostages'

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Two Mexican men employed as seasonal workers on an Abbotsford, B.C., farm say they felt trapped after they were denied their contractual rights to either go to work on another farm or be sent back to their homeland.

Jose Javier Ibarra-Soto and Jose Roberto Nunez stopped working 10 days ago at Townline Growers because, they say, their supervisor was abusive.

“There was verbal abuse,” Nunez, 38, told CBC News through an interpreter. Nunez has been coming to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers program for six years.

Ibarra-Soto, 33, said this is his fourth season in the program, and he’s happy to come to Canada to work, but this year has been different.

But they say the employer wouldn’t allow them to leave.

“We feel trapped, because we're telling the employer that we want to go and she's saying that she won't let us leave, because she says that others will then want to go. But that's not our problem,” Ibarra-Soto said.

The men are among about 3,000 Mexicans who come to B.C. every summer.

They pick fruit for about 12 hours a day for the minimum wage and sleep in dormitories. But in one hour, they earn what it would take a whole day to make back home.

Lack of mobility a frequent complaint

Unions say complaints from workers are far too common and lack of mobility is a frequent grievance.

“This whole program makes workers hostages to their employer,” said Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour.

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But the seasonal worker contract says that “the employer is responsible for the cost of two-way airfare for the worker, regardless of any early termination of the contract, whether by employer or worker, and for any reason."

The reality is that switching employers is nearly impossible for farm workers, said Lucy Luna, of the United Food Commercial Workers.

“The visa is tied up to an employer, which means they have no mobility and it allows the employer to hold them hostage, and that's the problem,” Luna said.

As CBC News was investigating the workers’ complaints, the Mexican consulate stepped in Wednesday to mediate the dispute.

“There was an altercation,” said vice consul Edgar Hurtado. “But we talked to both the workers and the employer, and the situation is being solved. At the request of the workers, they are going to be transferred to Mexico.”

Ibarra-Soto and Nunez flew home Thursday, but both say they hope to return to B.C. next year — if they can work at a different farm.

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