Canada relies heavily on migrant farmworkers to carry out agricultural labour across the nation. About 613,200 foreign nationals in Canada held work permits in 2016, with the agriculture industry being one of the main recipients of these workers. Nearly a quarter of agriculture workers in Canada are foreign workers. Unfortunately, many of these foreign workers in the Canadian agriculture sector often experience disparities in comparison to domestic workers.
Disparities Faced by Migrant Farmworkers
The agricultural sector is known for its relatively low average wage, but in addition to that, a significant proportion of the foreign workers in this industry experience a wage gap with their domestic counterparts. In addition, migrant workers often face a higher risk of exposure to pesticides and other agrochemicals which have the potential of causing adverse health effects such as neurological issues, respiratory issues, reproductive complications, or cancer. A report by Pysklywec, McLaughlin & Haines stated that about 20% of visits to the clinic by migrant farmworkers were for ocular or skin issues from exposure, with another 35% being other physical ailments from their work.
Migrant workers on Canadian farms face a higher risk of exposure to pollutants due to constantly working in spaces with poor ventilation, and breathing in or being in contact with toxic particles. Pesticides and herbicides are the main sources of these particles as they are used for controlling, killing, or repelling pests from various crops while stabilizing nitrogen levels and creating optimal conditions for plants. These pesticides receive praise in the agricultural industry because of their economic benefits through increasing crop yields and reducing labour requirements. But on the other hand, these chemicals continue to threaten the well-being of farmworkers.
Though only one-quarter of agriculture workers are foreign workers, these workers are disproportionately exposed to risks on Canadian farms compared to domestic workers who make up the greater proportion of the labour force. This clearly exemplifies environmental injustice.
The situation is even made worse due to systemic racism issues that keep these foreign farmworkers from having their needs met or their voices heard, especially given that up to 83% of new immigrants since 2016 are part of racialized groups.
Studies of Migrant Workers and Toxic Exposure
A study conducted in 2018 came to the conclusion that foreign workers are at higher risk of work injuries as a result of their higher exposure to chemical hazards.
Another study from 2021 went into estimations of how many agricultural workers in Canada have been exposed to the three most common pesticides based on the 2016 census. These three pesticides include chlorothalonil, with up to 14,100 exposed; 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid with up to 43, 600 exposed; and glyphosate with up to 55, 800 workers exposed respectively (Rydz, 2021). Exposure to these pesticides and herbicides can occur during the mixing, loading, and application of the chemicals, as well as the cleaning of equipment, and through pesticide drift (Rydz, 2021).
Cases of Toxic Exposure for Migrant Farmworkers
Migrant workers in the Canadian agricultural sector are often reluctant to report the health and safety issues they face out of fear of losing their jobs, a number of cases are known.
One of these cases includes three workers in British Columbia working for a mushroom farm who died, with two other ones suffering permanent and severe brain damage. This incident occurred after the workers were exposed to toxic gas after a pipe carrying a compost mixture broke in an enclosed shed in 2008 and was completely preventable.
Another more recent case occurred in 2020 involving a Jamaican worker in Ontario who broke out in an itchy rash which resulted in his skin peeling off. Only after this did the worker find out that the place of employment had dusted the buildings with hydrated lime powder to suppress the growth of bacteria. This powder migrated throughout the workers’ path right to their lunch room, as a result, they couldn’t escape this exposure that burned their eyes, lungs and skin. One of the farmworkers on this site was able to get a photo of the warning labels on the bags of Dolomitic Hydrated Lime which read: “Danger: causes serious eye damage. Causes skin irritation. May cause cancer if inhaled. May cause respiratory irritation. Causes damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure”.
Despite the danger that this chemical posed to these farm workers, they were given only a thin disposable mask to protect their respiratory tracts and were required to wash and reuse this mask. These workers were not given the proper personal protective equipment for handling such harmful chemicals highlights the risk these migrant workers had to endure.
Many labour workers in the agricultural sector also report their worksites lacking handwashing facilities and their housing lacking proper laundry facilities (19% of migrant agricultural workers had no washing machine and 25% had no tumble dryer) which amplifies the risk of pesticide exposure.
Solutions to Migrant Farmworkers’ Disparities
I recently wrote an article on the risks workers face from exposure to harmful chemicals in the leather tanning industry. While such issues are often common in countries of the global south, it is quite sad to realize that migrant workers are experiencing similar issues in a country such as Canada despite having stricter workers’ rights. Upon coming to Canada, many of these migrant farmworkers probably didn’t imagine they would experience such risks given the stricter labour rights in place in the country, but unfortunately, that is not the case.
One of the key ways we can work towards eliminating this disparity in the agricultural sector by leveraging workers’ stories and raising awareness.
Another thing that could also aid this cause would be to advocate for improved soil health. Improving soil health by using natural fertilizers and maintenance methods could eliminate the need for pesticide and herbicide use altogether.
Supporting governments with platforms for improved workers’ and immigrant rights can also build workers’ rights. Supporting non-government organizations that directly help workers can also help the well-being of these individuals.
Some NGOs working to advance this cause are listed below:
The Union for Agriculture Workers – UFCW Canada. UFCW Canada union provide both domestic and migrant agriculture workers with proper wages and workplace protections in the industry. This includes anyone working in greenhouse, mushroom, cannabis and field crop sectors.
Agriculture Workers Alliance (AWA) In association with UFCW offers advocacy and training to local and migrant agricultural workers on health, safety, and labour rights
Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC). MWAC supports migrants to stand up for their rights. They build migrant power by bringing together workers to create the change they want.
Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights – Canada (CMWRC) Launched in October 2015, CMWRC is a unified voice of migrant workers in Canada. Their aim is to rebuild the immigration system to ensure basic dignity and fairness for everyone.
Beaumont, Hilary (2021, December 18). ‘They care about their plants and not us’: For migrant farmworkers in Ontario, covid-19 made a bad situation worse. The Narwhal. Retrieved from https://thenarwhal.ca/covid-19-migrant-farmworkers/
Otero, G., & Preibisch, K. (2015). Citizenship and precarious labour in Canadian agriculture. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC Office.
Government of Canada. (2022, October 26). The Canadian Census: A rich portrait of the country’s religious and ethnocultural diversity. Statistics Canada. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/221026/dq221026b-eng.htm
Pysklywec, M., McLaughlin, J., Tew, M., & Haines, T. (2011). Doctors within borders: meeting the health care needs of migrant farm workers in Canada. Cmaj, 183(9), 1039-1042.
Rydz, E., Larsen, K., & Peters, C. E. (2021). Estimating exposure to three commonly used, potentially carcinogenic pesticides (chlorolathonil, 2,4-D, and glyphosate) among agricultural workers in canada. Annals of Work Exposures and Health, 65(4), 377-389. https://doi.org/10.1093/annweh/wxaa109
Sterud, T., Tynes, T., Mehlum, I. S., Veiersted, K. B., Bergbom, B., Airila, A., & Flyvholm, M. A. (2018). A systematic review of working conditions and occupational health among immigrants in Europe and Canada. BMC public health, 18(1), 1-15.
Zhang, Y., Ostrovsky, Y., & Arsenault, A. (2021, April 28). Foreign workers in the Canadian agriculture industry. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.25318/36280001202100400002-eng
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