SIX Jamaican farm workers in Ontario, Canada, who in June this year issued a distress call to the media about their sub par living and working conditions triggering investigations are crying victimisation after they say they were shipped back to Jamaica with virtually no warning.
The six, who had stayed off the job for a day in protest after their living quarters were flooded with wastewater, landed in Jamaica on Tuesday August 7, a day after the island ended its Independence celebrations.
A representative of the group speaking with the Jamaica Observer on Wednesday evening, alleged that the abrupt dismissal was ‘payback’ for their blowing the whistle in June.
Videos sent to the Observer at that time showed overflowing toilets and bathroom facilities, and waterlogged flooring in the bunkhouse which features an open-plan layout.
In one video, workers recorded a meeting between themselves and their handler, who, in a tirade punctuated by expletives, accused them of deliberately pouring grease down the drains on more than one occasions to cause the unsightly flooding. The man, whose voice dominated the audio, interrupted the workers’ attempts to deny any such activity, completely unaware that he was being recorded.
Following the media highlight by the farm workers, Labour Minister Pearnel Charles Jr ordered an immediate investigation into the living conditions and work environment of the farm workers from the location. He said liaison officers were directed to visit the location to provide a comprehensive report on the conditions of the farm workers. Then in July the Ministry of Labour and Social Security said it would be identifying 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.
But, according to the dismissed worker, once that flurry of activity died down, they were axed.
“The six of us are from the same bunkhouse where the problem was. Is when wi inna the bush [Friday, August 4] about 10 o’clock we see the man [supervisor] with the paper [with the names of those to be sent home]. Someone told me that the boss was told that is me send off the video, but they [supervisors] didn’t say that to us, all they said was that, ‘There is no more work,'” the worker claimed. He said the ‘no more work’ was simply an excuse as “harvesting just start”.
He said the group earlier that week had caught wind of plans to dismiss workers and had asked supervisors to confirm whether persons were to be sent home, but was told there was no such plan afoot.
He said the Friday when the edict was delivered they were collectively stunned.
“A frighten so til, I don’t even know what to say. Right now the whole camp shake up. All we demanded was respect. We didn’t come from any slum,” the worker who began working this May and should have ended his stint in October shared.
The labour minister, when contacted by the Observer on Wednesday evening, said he had been unaware of the development and promised to make queries into the well-being of the men. Charles had just hours before, while addressing a post-Cabinet press briefing, said there have mainly been positive reports coming from overseas farm workers, following the Government’s probe into the working conditions of the Jamaican farmers in Canada.
The worker, in the meantime, alleged that their Jamaican counterparts who are liaison officers and supervisors were less than sympathetic and truthful with their countrymen.
“The liaison officers came the Tuesday before and said they were there for a meeting. We felt something was off and we asked, but they said they came to do a roll call. When we called Friday [after the notification] he acted surprised. When we say we don’t have anybody to stand up for us people think is a joke thing,” the disgruntled worker noted.
“You see if they had let us finish the season and don’t take us back we would understand, but what they did was the height of disrespect,” he added.
He said the men who were dismissed ahead of a Canadian weekend holiday were not even allowed the courtesy of securing gifts for their families and had to be making queries about their departure.
“They told us we were leaving the 7th but we had to be asking what time was the flight and what time the vehicle was coming to pick us up from the farm,” he stated, noting that the move was so sudden that relatives thought they were being pranked when he asked them to make arrangements to pick him up from the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston.
The workers say their efforts to reach out to labour ministry officials here since they returned have been spurned.
“We are trying to say meet with us, man willing to travel from Westmoreland to meet with the minister. Even if they are not going to give us a chance to go back, just hear us out. We don’t know if anything can come out of this but, at the end of the day, we just want to meet with the minister and the head for the overseas employment unit. Right now we just wish we could have that meeting, that’s all we are asking, the guys are willing to come any day,” he said.
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.