Face the facts!

WITH the branding of the Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker Programme as, “a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery” by United Nation’s Special Rapporteur Tomoya Obokata, veteran trade unionist Vincent Morrison says Jamaican officials cannot “hide from the truth” especially given recent complaints from native workers, five of whom were unceremoniously shipped home last month after they blew the whistle on their farm’s management.

Obokata during a country visit to Canada from August 23 to September 6 this year, in a statement at the end of the 14-day visit, said he was “deeply disturbed by the accounts of exploitation and abuse shared by migrant workers”.

“Employer-specific work permit regimes, including certain temporary foreign worker programmes, make migrant workers vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery, as they cannot report abuses without fear of deportation,” Obokata said.

“So-called ‘temporary’ foreign workers address a permanent need on the labour market and have valuable skills that are critical to the Canadian economy,” the special rapporteur stated further.

Reacting to the rapporteur’s statements on Tuesday, Morrison said, ” the approach must never be that we bury our faces in the sand and expose our anatomy to the gaze of the unsuspecting public, we must confront these matters with a view to have them resolved”.

“These are industrial relations issues and we must never hide from the truth, we must never hide from the facts. We should embrace the report from the UN, we should look at it, study it and use it as the barometer going forward. That’s how we should handle it,” he told the Jamaica Observer.

The veteran trade unionist, who served for some 20 years with the overseas employment unit at the labour ministry under a previous administration, said the programme, which is a valuable one, should be better managed.

“You have good farmers who treat their workers exceptionally well and then you had bad farmers who didn’t care. All they wanted was to see their work done.

“I wouldn’t want to paint the programme with a broad brush to say it’s not a good programme, it’s excellent but some farmers are not ready and that is where I think the present administration fails to deal with. What is needed going forward is direct, ministerial attention; fulsome ministerial attention to ensure that we make the visits each year, spend time with the workers, spend time with the farmers and work out the thing in the interest of our workers,” Morrison told the Observer.

“The programme benefits Canada, benefits the farmers and also benefits the workers and the Jamaican economy and therefore, we have what is called a win-win situation but what has been missing is that very close connection, attention to deal with the issues as they arise,” he added.

In the meantime, addressing the sudden dismissal of the six Jamaicans by their farm owner after they, in June, went public with complaints about their sub-par living and working conditions, Morrison said, “it is most unusual for workers to complain and in the middle of their contract, that is most egregious. In other words, you as a worker, in a democratic country as big and large as Canada, complained about working conditions and you were sent home”.

“That to me is a breach of the contract because I am sure there is nothing in those contract which says that if you have a dissatisfaction about your pay, your working conditions, your living quarters, the food provided, whatever; you have the right to complain and to send you home that is victimization of the tallest order,” the trade unionist said.

The men, who had stayed off the job for a day in protest after their living quarters were flooded with waste water, landed in Jamaica on Tuesday, August 7, a day after the island ended its Independence celebrations. They said the news of their departure was given to them while they were in the field on Friday, August 4 and that they were told they were being sent home because “there was no more work”.

Morrison, however, rubbished that explanation.

“Even if there is no work, the long-standing arrangement is that when there is no work you stay because you have a contract. Weather conditions might prevent workers from going out, but that doesn’t mean that because you don’t have work today, your contract comes to an end,” he argued.

Said Morrison, “It has nothing to do with whether there is availability of work because there are times when the workers go up and they have to sit out days because there is no work. You are talking about agricultural crops and for whatever reason, you have bad weather, the fact is you have a contract and the contract entitles you to be on that farm from the start of the contract until the expiration of the contract.”

“Because you complain, that cannot be a basis for the contract to be terminated and I would want to urge the Ministry of Labour, it is a government to government programme and I would want to hope that the next meeting between Jamaican Government officials and Canadian Government officials that they deal with these breaches and these complaints expeditiously,” the trade unionist declared.

Efforts to speak with Labour Minister Pearnel Charles Jr in person on Tuesday were unsuccessful. The Observer was told that the minister was engaged in back-to-back meetings but that a statement on the report was being prepared for issuing.

The labour ministry had last month said it would be “thoroughly” investigating the cries of victimization by the dismissed workers following a meeting with them.

Only in July, the ministry pledged to identify additional platforms through which farm workers can blow the whistle freely and voice their issues and complaints without fearing backlash or victimisation from their handlers.

In October last year a fact-finding delegation was sent to investigate conditions on farms across Canada following the release of a letter written by Jamaican workers there and advocacy from injured migrant farm workers.

That team, the findings of which were released in April this year, countered the complaints of the workers, stating that the majority of workers were pleased with the programme and disputed that the working conditions were akin to slavery.