MONTEGO BAY, St James — Minister of Labour and Social Security Karl Samuda has lashed out at those who he said are determined to undermine the Canadian farm work programme.
He also insisted that he saw nothing, during his visit in August, to substantiate complaints received but stressed that he is now awaiting the results of a fact-finding team dispatched in October.
"Because of the criticism by this group of persons who are hell-bent on trying to erode the credibility of the programme — and by so doing, destroy the lives of many Caribbean people and thwarting their ambitions and their hopes and aspirations for a better quality of life — I decided that I would establish a commission of inquiry, a fact-finding mission from Jamaica," he explained.
Samuda was speaking during the opening session of the annual review meeting for the Canada/Caribbean Seasonal Agricultural Workers Programme in Montego Bay on Tuesday.
Among those who questioned the labour minister's comments after his August trip was the Advocates Network.
"According to an Al Jazeera report on August 22, 2022, the farm workers, who are affiliated with the human rights group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, described their experience as 'systematic slavery' and being 'treated like mules'," the group noted then.
They charged that the minister had, "effectively dismissed the pleas for assistance by the farm workers".
On Tuesday, Samuda insisted he was being vilified for "simply telling the truth" about what he saw during his visit.
"When asked what were my observations, I said, 'Well, in terms of the adverse publicity that the programme is receiving, on my trip nothing jumped out at me in an adverse way'. That was true then, and this is true now," he said of what he saw during his August visit.
"I was asked at the time when there was this thing called an alliance that was working assiduously to destroy the programme. And I don't apologise or retreat from that position one bit because there is no other way that I can describe exaggerations, and unreasonable behaviour without the factual basis on which to make those allegations," he told Tuesday's gathering at the Hilton Hotel.
Samuda, who conceded that "there's always room for improvement", said the fact-finding mission now underway will be a comprehensive review. It will include a look at the physical conditions under which Jamaicans are working on Canadian farms, the attitudes of workers, as well as efforts to detect patterns that may provide early warning about workers who may abandon their jobs and remain illegally in Canada.
"We are to use all the techniques available to us to discern attitudes that would suggest that there is a likelihood of that person not wanting to remain on the programme but want to run away, because it will damage the reputation of not just the programme but the people from the Caribbean who go AWOL," he explained.
The seasonal agricultural workers programme began in 1966 and is spread across about 655 farms in 10 Canadian provinces. Approximately 10,000 Jamaicans participate in the programme.
The fact-finding group, which includes representatives from trade unions, the industrial disputes tribunal, along with employers from Jamaica and the wider Caribbean landed in Canada on October 10. The plan was for them to visit approximately 70 farms over a two-week period, via a random-sampling method.
According to Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions (JCTU) President Helene Davis-Whyte, who chairs the group that has been mandated to deliver a report "that will ensure that the total picture is told of what exactly we have found, in terms of the conditions under which [Jamaican] farm workers work in Canada, and to also look at the programme itself… to see if [where necessary] we can make recommendations for improvement".