A $500-million dollar class-action lawsuit filed by two former migrant farm workers alleges the government of Canada’s foreign farm worker program is “racist.”
In the 1950s, Canadian government officials briefly considered making migrant farm workers work for a specific employer, however they later rejected the notion because they said it would be akin to slavery.
“It would be contrary to the whole Canadian belief in freedom of the individual,” said then-immigration minister Walter Harris.
However in 1966, the government allowed guaranteed work permits for particular employers, allowing for what would become known as “tied employment.”
Prior to the change, the majority of workers came from Europe. Later, migrant workers began coming predominantly from the Caribbean.
Now a $500-million class-action lawsuit has been filed against the federal government on behalf of migrant farm workers who have been working in Canada for the last 15 years. “Tied employment” is among the claims.
Until the lawsuit is certified by a judge, it cannot proceed as a class action.
Using historical records, the lawsuit claims that the same employer-specific permits that are currently still in place, have been imposed on black and Indo-Caribbean farmworkers as a result of their race and “motivated by overtly racist policy objectives.”
Additionally, the lawsuit is seeking restitution for the Employment Insurance money paid by migrant farmworkers, because, were they to lose their jobs, they wouldn’t be eligible to receive those benefits.
Earlier this year, a separate class action lawsuit was proposed, seeking to have closed work permits of any kind deemed unconstitutional.
This most recent case only deals with farmworkers, alleging that the original justification for tied employment was rooted in explicit racism.
“The wrongdoing we challenge in this case has been ongoing for more than half-a-century,” said lawyer Louis Century, who is working on the case. “These coercive conditions that were imposed in the 1960s for overtly racist reasons continue to be imposed more than 60 years later.”
The Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada released a statement saying that work is “underway” to introduce a sector-specific work permit, instead of an employer-specific work permit for temporary foreign workers.
No details have been released as to when such a permit would be available.
A spokesperson for the department noted that temporary foreign workers may apply for an open work permit should they feel they are being abused at their job, however the lawsuit claims that those permits are “an inadequate and ineffective half-measure.”
Over 50,000 migrant workers come to Canada annually to work in the agricultural sector.
Century said that the freedom to leave a job is “the most important measure of self protection that any worker has.”
With tied employment, migrant workers will be deported if they leave their job. However, prior to the 1966 program change, European farm workers were able to leave their program without fear of deportation and were offered alternative options to permanent residency.
“Tied employment … was imposed as a means to obtain the labour of racialized workers while subjecting such workers to more coercive conditions of employment,” reads the lawsuit.
Former Jamaican migrant farm worker Kevin Palmer is one of two plaintiffs in the case. He worked on a farm in Leamington, Ont. for eight months a year from 2014 to 2019.
In 2019, he was laid off with a number of other workers and sent back to Jamaica early due to problems with the crops. Following the termination of his contract, he wasn’t eligible for EI, despite having paid into it for six years.
“They’re taking this money but we don’t get anything back,” Palmer told the Toronto Star in a phone interview from Jamaica..
The lawsuit claims that migrant farm workers have contributed over $472 million in EI premiums to the federal government since 2008, with the government fully aware that they would not be able access those benefits later on.
Under the Employment Insurance Act, the recipient has to be living in Canada and “capable of and available for work” to have access to the benefits.