Co-authored by Don Wells, Professor Emeritus of Labour Studies and Political Science at McMaster University; Aaraón Diaz, Postdoctoral Fellow at the International Migration Research Centre; and André Lyn, community researcher.
Imagine for a moment there are hardly any jobs available in your community. The few that are available pay a maximum of $1.25 an hour. To support your family, you get a job as an agricultural worker in another country for up to eight months each year. Your work contributes to that country's economy. Yet that country's government won't allow you to bring your family with you. Regardless of your years of work, you have no prospect of becoming a permanent resident.
For 10 years, 20, maybe 40 years, you spend more of your life away from your family than with them. You pay into that country's taxes and employment insurance programs, but you are denied access to any benefits. You're seen as a labour commodity, not a person, and not someone with a family -- permanently "temporary," forever a "foreigner."
What you just imagined is a reality for tens of thousands -- mostly men with families who come from Mexico and the Caribbean to work under Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, called the SAWP. And it's been a reality for a long time. This year marks the SAWP's 50th anniversary.
The committee also recommended another crucial reform: that ways be found to help migrant workers gain permanent residency in Canada.
Now there are new grounds for cautious hope that a better reality could emerge. Although often vague and lacking in particulars, last week a Parliamentary Committee recommended some important changes. These include some of the recommendations that migrant workers and their allies have advocated for many years.
One is the right of workers not to be restricted to only one work contract with only one employer. Although insufficient attention was paid to massive problems related to family separation, the committee did recommend, again without enough particulars, that labour rights and standards be enforced more effectively. The committee also recommended another crucial reform: that ways be found to help migrant workers gain permanent residency in Canada.
Our new university based study suggests that if these and other changes were adequately formulated and enforced they could help a lot. We found that as the SAWP is currently set up, it hurts not only the workers but also damages their families. We interviewed SAWP workers, their spouses and children, and the children's teachers in Mexico and Jamaica. What we discovered about many of the SAWP's impacts on these families is alarming.
Soledad is one of the mothers and spouses we interviewed. Her husband, Pedro, has been a SAWP worker for many years. One year, when he was working in Canada, she had a miscarriage. There was no one to help her. Most of the time she raised her kids alone. Repeated SAWP separations damaged her marriage. Soledad says she doesn't love her husband anymore. The family Pedro worked so hard to support is no longer intact when he returns.
Marco's family is another example. While he was working in Canada, his sons stopped going to school. They developed alcohol and drug problems. His wife became depressed. He wants to immigrate with his family to Canada so they can be together, but under current rules, that's impossible.
SAWP workers should have a choice of coming to Canada as permanent residents and to bring their families.
These families are not unique. We found that repeated, prolonged separation of workers from their families under the SAWP has significant negative family impacts. Spouses become estranged. Some split up. Many kids say their dads are like strangers to them, that they don't love their dads any more. Often kids get sick or depressed when their dads leave. Some get better after a while. Others don't. A lot of kids rebel, especially against their moms.
To reduce these negative impacts and to promote social and political inclusion of those who labour among us, we join a growing chorus in arguing that SAWP workers should have a choice of coming to Canada as permanent residents and to bring their families.
A significantly reformed SAWP could strengthen families like Soledad's and Marco's. Much of the pressure for these changes is coming from outside Parliament. SAWP workers, faith groups, employers, unions and coalitions such as Justicia for Migrant Workers and the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change have been calling for similar reforms to the SAWP for a long time. Workers and their allies are currently marching over 1,500 kilometers in a Harvesting Freedom Caravan through southern Ontario to raise awareness and demand changes. Their final stop will be in Ottawa on Thanksgiving weekend.
A SAWP that is much better for workers and their families is not hard to imagine. The time is right for Ottawa to make it a reality.
Don Wells is Professor Emeritus of Labour Studies and Political Science at McMaster University; Janet McLaughlin is Assistant Professor of Health Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University; Aaraón Diaz is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the International Migration Research Centre, and André Lyn is a community researcher. Their study, Impacts of Repeated Migration on SAWP Families¸ was funded through a Community-University Research Alliances grant, Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario, by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
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