Labour ministry mindful of concerns raised over foreign worker programme
An undated file photo of farm workers on the job in Canada.

JAMAICA'S Ministry of Labour says it has "taken note" of the recent criticism of "aspects" of the Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker Programme as "a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery" by United Nations Special Rapporteur Tomoya Obokata.

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 ministry, in a statement issued on Friday in response to queries from the Jamaica Observer, said while "there is no specific reference to the seasonal agricultural workers programme" under which thousands of Jamaicans have been engaged for decades, it is "mindful of the concerns raised". It however admitted that its "fact-finding mission has unearthed instances of unfavourable circumstances in living and working conditions".

"In these instances workers are always encouraged to use the established channels to report any forms of abuse or untenable conditions," the ministry added.

It further emphasised the roles of its liaison officers in protecting the rights and interests of farm workers and the integrity of the programme.

The findings of the UN's rapporteur comes on the heels of recent complaints from several Jamaican farm workers, five of whom were unceremoniously shipped home from Canada last month after they blew the whistle on their farm's management. The men, who had stayed off the job for a day in protest after their living quarters became flooded with waste water, landed in Jamaica on 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 August 4 and that they were told they were being sent home because "there was no more work".

After the matter was brought to the ministry's attention by the Observer, it said it would be "thoroughly" investigating the cries of victimisation by the dismissed workers following a meeting with them.

In addressing Obokata's findings, the ministry in the same statement indicated that it will be re-engaging the group of farm workers. In the statement, which was a further response to questions from the Observer regarding the welfare of the workers, the ministry said upon conclusion of its investigations "regarding the recent subset of farm workers who were prematurely repatriated in early August" it has "decided to place the workers on other farms when the new season of operations begins in January 2024".

According to the ministry, it "can confirm" that the prematurely repatriated group had not been blacklisted.

"No complaints were filed against these workers and there were no reports of a breach of contract against them," the ministry stated.

In the meantime, the ministry reiterated its commitment to "resolving any issues that threaten the longevity of the programme", adding that it "remains steadfast in protecting the rights of workers and maintaining the integrity of the programme, while expanding same".

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 fear of 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 whom 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.

Both the ministry's Seasonal Agricultural Workers Programme (SAWP) and the Low-Skill Stream are a part of the larger overseas work programme. Under the Temporary Foreign Worker Programme employers can hire temporary foreign workers for a maximum of 24 months, unlike the SAWP in which the maximum period is eight months.

The ministry said, since the start of 2023, it has dispatched 8,519 workers under the SAWP and 578 workers under the Low-Skill Stream.

By ALICIA DUNKLEY-WILLIS Observer senior reporter

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