By: Leslie Munoz 

Pablo Godoy of Students Against Migrant Exploitation speaks at Carleton University on March 14. Credit: Sam Heaton
Pablo Godoy of Students Against Migrant Exploitation speaks at Carleton University on March 14.
Credit: Sam Heaton

Students Against Migrant Exploitation (SAME) stopped at Carleton University on March 14 as part of a 2014 tour of university campuses to raise awareness about migrant exploitation in Canada. Using the work of the Agricultural Workers Alliance as an example, the group highlighted the importance of grassroots organizing in response to exploitation of migrant workers.

Pablo Godoy of SAME said the tour is “part of a strategy to build awareness on campuses specifically about migrant workers, the conditions under which they come to (Temporary Foreign Worker) Programs, how they migrate, the circumstances in which they live, their working conditions, discrimination, isolation.”

The discussion began with Godoy talking about the insecurity that migrants in Canada experience.

“There is an innate precariousness that comes with the programs,” said Godoy. “The immigration system has had a big shift, in that the number of people that are allowed into the country temporarily far surpasses the number of people that are allowed and have some level of access to citizenship or residency.”

For this reason, one of the major issues facing migrant workers, according to SAME, is the lack of status and hence mobility in Canada. “The fact that (workers) can be sent home and repatriated faster than planes makes it like an open door policy for employers to really roll over employees,” Godoy said.

Godoy also likened Temporary Foreign Workers Programs to indentured servitude. For example, migrant agricultural workers are tied to their employers and have to live under the arrangements made by individuals who both pay their wages and ensure their ability to legally stay in the country. To speak out against employer exploitation is therefore to risk developing a negative relationship with someone who can have you sent away at any time.

According to Godoy, “the systems that are set up actually don’t allow for protection or enforcement of any laws.”

“There isn’t even a Service Canada for farm workers,” said Santiago Escobar of the Agricultural Workers Alliance. “The Canadian government doesn’t provide any kind of attention or entity or agency that provides service…. They treat workers as a cheap commodity, a disposable commodity.”

The Agricultural Workers Alliance acts as a quasi union for migrant agricultural workers in the Niagara region. The group also does other work on the ground to support workers and bring them together in the community. Some of this effort involves supporting them in navigating through different application processes as well as providing English language classes and transportation so that workers can access essential services such as health care. Social events are also organized so that migrants experience a livelihood outside their labour.

Escobar said that one of the main challenges is building relationships with workers. Before they come to Canada, migrant workers are often warned against associating with other workers in a union or communicating with political groups. For that reason, he said, providing community and support is essential to empowerment.

This article was first seen in The Leveller Vol. 6, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2014).