Farm workers fuming

A group of Jamaican farm workers in Ontario, Canada, who say their location was not one of those visited by a fact-finding delegation which investigated conditions on farms there in 2022, stayed off the job on Thursday in protest after their living quarters were flooded with wastewater. This, they said, is just one aspect of the inhumane conditions under which they work.

According to the workers, two of whom spoke to the Jamaica Observer on behalf of their colleagues, the only remaining distinction between their living and working conditions and slavery is the fact that their boss has not hit them.

“A jus’ lick him nah lick wi, man. Him nah go easy pon wi. When the minister [former Labour Minister Karl Samuda] come and say wi a live life, a this a the life weh dem seh wi a live. We have no representative. It crazy, man,” said the worker, who told the Observer they have not been able to contact their liaison officer to report their distress.

In October 2022, Jamaica had dispatched the fact-finding delegation to investigate conditions on farms across Canada following the release of a letter authored by Jamaican workers there and advocacy from injured migrant farm workers.

The team released its findings in April this year, but those findings countered the complaints of the workers.

On Thursday, the workers sent several videos to the Observer depicting overflowing toilets and bathroom facilities with waterlogged flooring in the bunkhouse which features an open-plan layout cancelling every nuance of privacy. In one video, workers recorded a meeting between themselves and their handler who, in an expletive-laced tirade, accused them of deliberately pouring grease down the drains on more than one occasion to cause the unsightly flooding. The man, who dominated the video, interrupted the workers’ attempts to deny any such activity.

“We couldn’t work this morning. The place so stink. One youth, right now him throat mash up because him had to go outside last night to urinate and yuh have to be careful how you go outside because you have the wild dogs outside and the skunk them all over the place,” one worker said.

One of the workers, who spoke with the Observer, said there would be a backlash in coming days based on the fact that they did not work. He said a plumber who had been called to address the situation had warned that the fix was temporary as the issue was due to the fact that there was no grease trap and the water from the kitchen and bathroom areas were being filtered through the same pipe and there were too many individuals in the bunkhouse.

“Is a man like this weh wi mek wi nuh work fi all three day. Him a go pressure wi, sabotage; all when him back wi up inna di sun, a backra style,” the worker alleged, noting that temperatures have been at a high in recent days going up to 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 degrees Fahrenheit) but with no reprieve from the eight-hour work days which they spend on their knees in the fields.

“It’s not standing work. You have to kneel right through. Sometimes when they see you on your knees they say you are going slow,” he said, adding that, despite the searing heat only three scheduled water breaks can be taken.

“There is one at 10:00 am, 12:00 pm and 3:30 pm and temperatures can go 32, 33 degrees; it crazy hot. When yuh come in and wash your face the water burn you like pepper. The condition is bad. I don’t see it getting better. I see a Mexican almost drop down in the field and is a Jamaican let him get some water,” the worker said.

The workers are part of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Programme, which began in 1966, and are spread across 655 farms in 10 provinces. The programme allows Canadian employers to hire temporary migrant workers from Mexico and 11 countries in the Caribbean to fill gaps in the country’s agricultural labour market.

According to the workers, there is a litany of problems which needs to be addressed. They said that it is not uncommon for their bosses to respond to their complaints by saying that if they send them home, they can get 40 workers to replace them.

“There are no separate rooms, just one big room, everybody can see everybody. There is no privacy. No lock on the doors, somebody can just come in and take up anything. The heater inside the bunkhouse, they gauged it, we cannot control it,” one worker said, adding that at nights the temperature drops.

“The place is cold, very cold. We have to live in socks and long jacket right through.

“The next problem we have is the water, when you catch it and put it down in glass or cup you have to strain it; it makes no sense you boil it, it’s dirty, always stink. We avoid drinking it. It is contaminated. No matter what happens, we would never drink that water in Jamaica,” he said.

“We work eight hours per day, we don’t get days off. We are supposed to get overtime and we don’t get any. They don’t provide work gears. They are supposed to provide work gears for us,” he said further.

One worker charged that the uncomfortable situation at that farm makes it easily the one with the highest number of workers who have absconded.

“If they inspect this farm, it has the most persons running off. Last year about 30 people run off and this year about three gone already,” the worker told the Observer, adding, “We a look help,”