A Slap In The Face: Jamaican Government’s Response to CanadianFarm Workers
On August 22, 2022, Al Jazeera reported on a letter sent to Labour Minister Karl Samuda describing the less than human conditions and abuses being faced by our Jamaican farm workers affiliated with the rights group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) on Canadian farms. Conditions so horrifyingly inhumane, they are unhesitantly likened to “systematic slavery” and being “treated like mules” — terms that immediately conjure up memories of our colonial/slave past. “We are treated like mules and punished for not working fast enough. We are exposed to dangerous pesticides without proper protection, and our bosses are verbally abusive, swearing at us. They physically intimidate us, destroy our personal property, and threaten to send us home,” reads the letter. The workers called on the government to address these systemic problems with the attention and urgency that such matters of human and workers’ rights abuses demand.
The workers — who understandably chose anonymity out of fear of retaliation — are employed under what’s known as the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). Syed Hussan, executive director of the MWAC rights group, not only described the farm workers as “incredibly courageous”, but lauded their stance in “organising and fighting back…and taking risks because it is imperative”. Again a historical reminder of their ancestors over four hundred years ago resisting the same racialized and dehumanized conditions under the institution of slavery. The incomparable difference, however, is that these workers in the 21st century chose peaceful and civil means to bring attention to and seek remedies for their problems.
They chose to write to the highest authority — the Jamaican government through the Minister of Labour and Social Security, Karl Samuda. It meant, therefore, that at the heart of it, these Jamaicans were appealing to fellow Jamaicans, fellow Jamaicans with a shared history of colonial violence and abuse, to supposedly shared sentiments and concerns for the interest of every Jamaican, whether at home or abroad, on the basis of oneness. That surely — as the students marooned in Ukraine a few months ago believed — their government would be alarmed, outraged at these allegations and would immediately intervene on their behalf or at the very least do some fact-finding for themselves. In a culture where so many have become disillusioned with the political directorate and process — with the system — this was an extraordinary move.
“Jamaican Minister Rejects Workers’ Abuse Claims On Canadian Farms”
It becomes unfortunate, therefore, that their desperate cry for help was met with gross indifference by their very own countryman and Minister, in whom they placed the trust to act as an intermediary in their welfare. The above headline from Al Jazera says it all. Minister Samuda with scant regard for his very own countrymen casually and callously asserted that while on a recent visit to the farms alleged, he saw “no evidence of mistreatment”. Presumably, nothing that would be akin to “systematic slavery.
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera on Friday, August 26, 2022, four days after the publication of the initial letter, Karl Samuda admitted that working conditions varied between the nine farms he visited, including the two mentioned in the letter. However, he unreservedly stated that he “observed very good relations” between the Canadian hosts and also with the Jamaican government liaison officials “ based in Canada to safeguard the interests of our migrant workers. So, again presumably nothing that would be tantamount to making a mountain out of a molehill that these farm workers have cited or imagined.
But realistically, did Minister Samuda expect to see open evidence of the alleged mistreatment and abuse on display while he a top official from the Jamaican government was visiting a programme that is needed by Canadians as much as Jamaicans? Did he expect to see farmer workers being treated like “mules’ while on tour or being punished for not filling a quota?
Indeed, Minister Samuda went on to say: “We observed no evidence of mistreatment,” underscoring that SAWP is “absolutely essential to thousands of Jamaican families, many rural communities, and the entire [country of] Jamaica”. So, is it that because the programme is essential to the “fortunes” of rural people in particular and the entire Jamaica on a whole that these allegations must be swept aside…ignored?
Minister Samuda confidently dismisses “seismic-level exploitation” as described by the farm workers by saying, “I cannot see persons enthusiastically participating in a programme for 35 years under the conditions which are now being asserted”. But again, if the programme is of such national socio-economic value that Misinster Samuda is perhaps so inhibited and encumbered that he eagerly rubbishes, then isn’t it quite possible that the same economic constraints would drive poor farm workers desperate for employment to endure thirty-five years of oppressive treatment? In any event, Minister Samuda either has a very poor or selective memory because the history of farm work both in Canada and the United States has always been fraught with horror stories of inhumane treatment.
“A Slap In The Face Off Every Farm Worker And Our Families”
The above is how the workers described Minister Samuda’s insensitivity to their plight. “We feel betrayed, like the world doesn’t make sense. Since our letter came out and got media attention, our bosses have been telling us to keep quiet or else they will shut down the farm and we will all lose our jobs”, was another response from the workers. And rightly so, when so much trust was put in the system. Again, “The Minister made it clear that we cannot look to the authorities for help — that we as migrant workers must protect ourselves.” which comes back full circle to the point made at the beginning about the extraordinary trust these workers placed in the Jamaican authority’s patriotic duty to help its nationals abroad. But again like the stranded students in Ukraine, the Jamaican government has once again abdicated any responsibility to protect the interests of its people.
It is downright shameful that the government of Jamaica through the Minister of Labour Karl Samuda has chosen to dismiss the pleas for action by our farm workers in Canada regarding their work and accommodation arrangements. It was only after much public outrage, virtually strong-arming, that the government agreed to investigate. It is hoped that after these investigations are completed the necessary corrective mechanism will be put in place to address this long-standing complaint by farm workers.