Female farm workers become easy targets for sexual abuse


WE DON’T NEED MOVIE STARS TO REMIND US. We all know far too many men prey on the women who work for them. The federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) makes it worse.

The SAWP offers workers hard work, few rights and a risk of deportation if you complain—even about sexual violence. Experts believe this increases the chances that female farm workers will be the victims of sexual violence.

Teresa Garcia* was one such victim. She was attacked by her boss on his farm in British Columbia, in 2014. She says he forced his mouth onto hers and began grabbing her inappropriately. She managed to shake off his grip and run back to her co-worker in the vineyard for support.

Teresa was brave enough to report the attack. In Canada, 46 per cent of women survivors don’t even report sexual assault.

But for Teresa it was her word against the boss. The Crown attorney decided there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed with the charges.

Teresa is a single mom from Baja California, Mexico. Since 2012, she has been supporting her parents and two daughters by spending up to eight months each year on Canadian farms through SAWP.

She says Mexico’s Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare verbally warns SAWP workers each season before they leave Mexico: “‘You’re coming to Canada to work, not to cause problems.’ If you complain about something, they kick you out of the program.”

More like captives than workers

In the summer of 2015, Luz Flores* arrived in British Columbia hoping to work for a few months to save some money to pay off her student loans. She found work on a cherry orchard in the Similkameen Valley. Her boss sexually assaulted her.

He grabbed her while she was walking through an empty storehouse. He forcibly groped her and began kissing her neck. Luz screamed for him to stop. She tried top push him away. But he was a lot bigger and stronger.

Luz decided not to report the groping to the Canadian police. She feared deportation.

Both Teresa and Luz told researchers a fear of deportation was a major factor in deciding whether to report their assaults. Both women knew of other workers who had been sent home for complaining to authorities about living conditions, workplace injuries, bullying and harassment.

Canada’s SAWP is the main agricultural stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. In 2017, approximately 40,000 workers came to Canada as a part of the SAWP.

The program began in 1966 in response to lobbying from farmers. That year 264 Jamaican workers were hired in Ontario. Since then, the program has expanded to all Canadian provinces, bringing workers from Mexico and 11 Caribbean countries.

The structure of the SAWP hands employers much heightened power over their workers. Work permits are tied to a specific employer, so getting fired typically means getting deported. Workers in abusive workplaces often have difficulty transferring to a new boss. To be rehired the following season, a farm worker must receive a positive evaluation from their employer. All of it makes female farm workers more vulnerable to sexual assault.

The program’s requirements effectively deter worker complaints about labour practices, housing conditions, workplace injuries or violence. The SAWP contains no pathway to citizenship, even for men and women who have worked in Canada for decades.

Much more than #MeToo

Movements like #MeToo and Times Up are pushing for systemic change. Women workers are pointing to the specific ways race, class and gender can amplify women’s risk of workplace sexual abuse. In November, the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, representing more than 700,000 women farm workers in the United States, released a letter in solidarity with Hollywood actors who had survived sexual assault, highlighting the gender inequity that pervades both industries.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farm worker-led organization, has been calling on the Wendy’s fast-food chain to sign up with an independent workplace monitoring program that would help prevent sexual violence in fields where the restaurant’s tomatoes are produced.

After a five-day Freedom Fast, coalition farm worker women marched in New York City. Some were accompanied by their daughters.

There are slow signs of change in Canada. In 2015, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario awarded more than $200,000 to two sisters from Mexico hired to work in an Ontario fish-packing plant under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

The tribunal found that Presteve Foods had created a “sexually poisoned work environment.” Thirty-nine migrant women from Thailand and Mexico participated as complainants.

The woman who received the highest damages stated: “Under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the boss has all the power—over your money, house, status, everything.... That happened to me eight years ago, and the system is still the same.”

Solutions for a better future

Anelyse Weiler and Amy Cohen are two academics who have conducted field research with migrant farm workers in Canada since 2013. They have very clear ideas about what is needed to make all women workers safer at work.

“The B.C. government has promised to establish a registry that could help prevent migrant workers from being charged illegal recruitment fees. Provinces could also set up anonymous, toll-free and multilingual crisis hotlines for workers, including those who are undocumented.

“To address the multiple barriers faced by migrant farm worker women to health care, researchers have recommended enrolling workers in provincial health-care plans instead of private insurance schemes. Free legal services and English-language classes could also strengthen women’s ability to assert their rights. Workers should have the right to a fair appeal process before deportation.

“Ultimately, the Canadian government should eliminate tied work permits and provide migrant workers with full immigration status, two steps that would immediately lessen the disproportionate power of the employer.

“Such changes would also go a long way toward ensuring that those who do the vital work of growing the food we eat receive the respect, freedom and dignity they deserve.”

* Not her real name

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